Why Is Instagram’s Explore Tab so Terrible?

Why Is Instagram’s Explore Tab so Terrible?

Facebook recently published an article on its Artificial Intelligence blog explaining the complex processes that are used to select content for Instagram’s Explore tab. Given the technical genius and intricate programming involved, why is this Explore tab so bad and damaging to content creators?

According to the article, half of all Instagram’s users browse the Explore tab each month in order to discover fresh content and find new accounts to follow. Facebook engineers and research scientists have built the process by which Instagram’s platform selects and presents these results, and through the recently-published blog have given an insight into how it functions.

The post is quite dense in its terminology and clearly the methods used to create this curated Instagram experience is far from simple. What it doesn’t explain, however, is how the tab is dominated by influencers, pay-to-be-featured accounts, and freebooters. Either filtering these accounts is too difficult for the engineers, or Facebook knows that these accounts are ruining users’ experience of Instagram and simply doesn’t care.

According to the article, recommendations are “high quality and fresh,” but looking at my explore tab suggests otherwise. Ignoring the IGTV tile, half of the accounts that the Explore tab presents to me are feature and freebooting accounts.

Instagram explore tab and feature account

On the left, my Explore tab, 50% of which is comprised of feature accounts which today is mostly rock climbing. On the right, your typical parkour feature account.

Feature accounts embody almost everything that is wrong with Instagram. Many are freebooters, taking other people’s content to build a following of tens of thousands of people, and then using that platform to sell t-shirts, knickknacks, or presets. Admittedly, some accounts legitimately ask permission from the original content-creators (such as the Fstoppers Instagram account), but many accounts not selling cheap t-shirts and sunglasses are generating an income by charging a fee to those content creators who wish to have their work published, or unashamedly advertising for paid promotions. If you’ve ever followed a feature account, used its hashtag repeatedly, and wondered what it takes to get your work accepted onto their feed, the answer is simple: money.

The article explains: “Using a variety of signals, we filter out content we can identify as not being eligible to be recommended before we build out eligible inventory for each person.” Given the vast number of images and videos being uploaded to Instagram every second, this is a huge task, but one that the Facebook engineers are proud of having created. The article continues:

In addition to blocking likely policy-violating content and misinformation, we leverage ML [machine learning] systems that help detect and filter content like spam.

Given that posting other people’s work without permission violates Instagram’s terms and conditions, why aren’t the engineers taking steps to keep these from appearing on the Explore tab? Surely filtering these out would be a relatively simple process given the expertise available. Is Facebook not concerned about the shadow markets that operate on its platform?

One likely answer is that Facebook is deliberately using machine learning to promote these accounts. To suggest that it would feature so many of these accounts accidentally feels incredibly naive. The social media giant has little regard for users’ intellectual property as long as it generates clicks, and the shadow market that operates on its platform is relatively small compared to the millions of dollars generated by influencers. The move to hide likes (but, notably, not followers counts) on individual posts was declared by Facebook as a means of improving the Instagram experience and stop us all being so obsessed with validation, but the truth is that the shadow market operated by influencers is both lucrative and damaging to Instagram’s own advertising revenue streams — hence Instagram's need to take action.

By contrast, freebooting and feature accounts do not undermine Instagram’s ad revenue. If anything, it’s quite the opposite: they generate millions of image views every single day, keeping eyeballs locked to screens, and thus watching Instagram’s adverts. There’s no reason to unplug this revenue source, and it should be no surprise that such accounts are so prevalent on the Explore tab, to the point that they might even be deliberately promoted.

Of course, it's easy to criticize Facebook but its purposely opaque practices and murky ethics must be called out as even governments struggle to hold it to account. If your Explore tab is as awful as mine, I'd be grateful to receive your thoughts in the comments below.

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I thought Flickr explore was bad sometimes then I went on Instagram. Instagrams is horrible, the same pictures over and over for days, Flickr’s is at least new images everyday. I still don’t understand why Instagram was so popular.

Dan Marchant's picture

Actually you are wrong. Instagram has loads of new images each day.... it's just that they all look identical. "shot of back of woman in hiking shorts standing in front of stunning landscape" x 700.... "fit person doing yoga on rocky outcrop" x1000, "woman standing on the dock" x1300.

No I’m not. I have seen the same pictures or video clips over and over for weeks. One particular of a woman with a owl in her jacket has been showing up since the spring, that is a very easy one to remember. Every day since Tesla announced that ugly truck the same video clip shows up of it driving down the street, hard to forget something that ugly.

Lee Ramsden's picture

couldn’t agree more Andy,
Its also the feeling when scrolling through your explore feed,
and Instagram has the audacity to display one of your own images,..
hey you will like this image... damn right its mine on a freebooting account
Cheeks F’s!

Marcus Joyce's picture

I liked your lead photo it's as exactly how most people see theirs.

Good article. Honestly I wouldn't try and answer it regarding freebooters etc but keep crushing the point it's useless.

How long will it take them to realise that what I want to see is not what I know of but stuff I didn't realised existed!

Jordan McChesney's picture

Personally, I only ever visit the explore page by accident for this very reason. I follow a lot of feature accounts related to subjects I’m interested in, and that’s actually how I find most of the people I follow. When they feature a photo I really like, I check out the photographer’s page and check out the rest of their work. If I like what I see, I follow.

I’d be much happier if Instagram implemented a “discover page” where you could input a little information to get better results. For example, I like following amateurs with 1000 or fewer followers, to keep things fresh. I also find these accounts tend to be a little more responsive to comments, which adds a nice human touch. So if I could go onto a “discover page” and choose only to view posts by people with fewer than 1000 followers, It’d be a lot easier to find these kinds of accounts. However, with their current system, these kinds of accounts will never pop up without me digging through hashtags.

If Instagram cared more about people with fewer than 10k followers, I think a lot more people would be invested. I know I would.

Rayann Elzein's picture

I stopped following and more importantly tagging such feature accounts. They are useless and if by any chance (which never happens) they re-share your content, you don't get any benefit from it. I do tag locations' travel/tourism board accounts, which represent real organisation who are real (potential) clients, but that's it.

Oh and when I accidentally end up on a feature account, if I enjoy something they post, I try as much as possible to go to the original creator's account to like the image there, instead of on the feature account.