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Instagram gets more #interesting

The social network now lets you follow hashtags

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The glass facade of the SuperMoon Bakehouse (#newforkcity, #eatingnyc) has a pleasing symmetry to it. Two black rectangles sit on either side of a square, a neon smiley face suspended upside down in the center. Inside, a few small cylinders of pink marble serve as tables, but seating for customers is limited. Most of the shop is dedicated to a massive counter, along which the day’s selection of colorful, decorative pastries are carefully spaced (#foodgasm, #dessertporn). Behind the counter are rows of tightly packed boxes, stacked to shoulder height, and coated in a reflective silver that produces a rainbow sheen (#iridescent, #myunicornlife).

The croissants and donuts on offer are quite tasty, but for many customers, that isn’t the main attraction. For the steady stream of tourists and bloggers who stopped in while I was there, the shop is first and foremost a visual treat, offering itself up as a backdrop for user’s to craft a winning Instagram post. The content of your photo is important, but as any serious Instagrammer knows, the hashtags you attach are equally important (#postitfortheaesthetic). Someone may have just a few dozen followers, but by grouping their post through hashtags, they can get their images in front of thousands, even millions of potential viewers, all of whom tune in each day for hashtags about food, fashion, and sparkly colors.

Up until now, there were two ways to interact with a hashtag. You could click through a hashtag on a post, or you could search for a specific tag in the Explore section of the app. Today, Instagram is introducing a new way to interact with hashtags. You can now “follow” a hashtag the same way you would follow an account. Instagram’s algorithms will then pick and choose some of the highlights from that collection and surface them in your main feed. It’s a fundamental change to one of the largest social media platforms in the world, elevating your interest in adorable dogs or expensive automobiles to equal status with your friends and family.

I’ve been testing out the feature for the last two weeks, and I find myself spending more time with Instagram as a result. I have always avoided the Explore tab. It felt like a random mishmash of posts personalized for me and generic viral content optimized to be popular. Take a recent experience I had with the “videos you might like” channel: it started with a highlight from a UFC fight, perfect for me, before segueing to a clip of random teens slapping each other at a party, Beyoncé accepting an award, a volcano erupting against the night sky, and a strange-looking fence post that turns out to be a well-camouflaged bird, shared by an account named “ifyouhigh.” It was as discordant as flipping through channels on your cable box.

By contrast, the posts injected into my main feed based on the hashtags I chose to follow (#modernart, #bjj, #ancient) felt carefully curated. There is a lot of variety, even within those categories, but you can train the algorithm on what you do and don’t like. Engage with the post by leaving a heart or a comment, and Instagram will assume you want more. Click the menu button on the top right of the post, and you can downvote the offending image by asking Instagram not to show you similar content for that hashtag again. After a few days of this, the art in my feed, both martial and modern, felt fine-tuned to my taste.

Matthew Ogle, product manager at Instagram, photographed at SuperMoon Bakehouse.
Matthew Ogle, product manager at Instagram, photographed at SuperMoon Bakehouse.

The man at the helm of this new product is Matthew Ogle (#brutalism, #chinatownnyc, #goatsofinstagram) a British-Canadian who cut his teeth working at music services like Last.fm and Spotify. He was the product manager most directly responsible for Discover Weekly, which serves up a personalized playlist to each of Spotify’s 140 million listeners every Monday. That product elegantly combined human curation with machine learning, delivering recommendations that felt intimate across a massive audience. Ogle’s goal now is to do the same for the interest communities and visual culture of Instagram, which is rapidly approaching 1 billion monthly active users.

Hashtags and playlists share a number of sensibilities. People use them to collect media under broad umbrellas, making it easier for others to find jazz or rock tracks, or fitness or travel photographs. But they also use them to invent subgenres and forge new tribes. That makes them the perfect fuel for machine learning systems that rely on data labeled by humans.

SuperMoon Bakehouse, New York.
SuperMoon Bakehouse, New York.

“Discover Weekly wasn’t about teaching an algorithm to understand and then recommend music. We taught an algorithm to look at what the community was already doing with this building block, the playlist, and to take the best of what the community was doing and extend it in a new direction,” says Ogle. “Hashtags are kind of the same way. You have something that is working organically on the platform, how do we add just enough additional structure so that more people can participate.”

Right now, exploring your interests on Instagram requires active work on your part. You can manually search a hashtag each day, or ask around for recommendations of good accounts to follow. You can scroll through Explore, which is guessing about what you want to see based on accounts you follow and posts you engage with. But you can’t give the Explore page any instructions about what exactly you want to see more of. “My job was to find ways to take the friction out of that process, to bring discovery and community-led goodness to where people already are,” says Ogle. “Hashtags have some really nice properties, because they are already this bottom-up, community-led aggregation.”

Of course, hashtags have some properties that make them tricky to work with as well. “Hashtags can have multiple valid meanings,” says Ogle. I might be interested in #barracuda because I like to fish, while you might follow the tag for images of the classic American muscle car. “There’s also a rich tradition of using hashtags for jokes, sarcasm, and memes. That is something we don’t want to disrupt,” he notes. Ideally, you and I can follow #cougar for very different reasons and both come away with a satisfying experience.

To help solve this problem, any image that appears in your main feed because you follow a hashtag will have a prominent button above it, allowing you to easily tell the service that you don’t want to see more images like this. It won’t unfollow the tag, but it will help to train the system on what aspects of a certain tag appeal to you. The hashtag #dirtykids is used by parents who want to highlight cute photos of their messy toddler. It’s also used by a community of young, homeless adults who ride the rails across the US. “So one of the ways through all that is, over time, personalize the rankings of things we might show you, versus someone else, for the same hashtag,” says Ogle.

Mike Krieger, Instagram co-founder, photographed outside of Gramercy Park, New York.
Mike Krieger, Instagram co-founder, photographed outside of Gramercy Park, New York.

From the very beginning, Instagram’s users were finding ways to hack the service so they could organize around interests and communities. “You build a product with few constraints and people will surprise you with the weird stuff they do,” said Mike Krieger, Instagram’s co-founder (#nowspinning, #bermesemountaindog, #fromwhereistand).

Let’s say you wanted to run a contest for photography buffs in San Francisco. “There were no hashtags, so people would create a second account, maybe BestPhotosSF, and then ask people to @ mention that account. Then they would refresh in a frenzy and write down all the submissions. It was this early interest in clustering or organization that went beyond the account level,” explains Krieger. The company quickly embraced the behavior, debuting hashtags in January 2011 so users could organize posts around events, places, or topics.

Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Krieger is now the company’s chief technical officer. We met up recently at the Gramercy Park Hotel (#nyc, #rosebar, #gramercyparkhotel), where he was staying while attending the engineering team’s annual offsite. As an expat, Krieger has always taken a keen interest in the way communities formed on Instagram, and the way users leveraged the service to connect across borders and cultures. “Forums have been around the internet forever, since the BBS days, but they emerged on Instagram in the craziest way,” says Krieger. “Small groups of people who had gotten to know one another would announce a hashtag, and then at some predetermined time, they would all start posting with that tag and in the comment section having forum threads.”

From the very beginning, Instagram’s app had a “Popular Page.” This was a collection of posts from around the service that had garnered the most likes and comments. It was something for users to dip into once they had caught up on their feed, but it wasn’t personalized at all. In June 2012, the Popular tab was combined with the search bar, and renamed as Explore. For the first time, users could dig deeper into certain hashtags and accounts, but by default it still surfaced the posts with the most engagement on a global scale — an approach that meant Explore was usually dominated by posts from celebrities and extremely broad topics.

In 2014, Krieger and his team began to personalize the experience. Along with trending items, Explore now showed you posts that had been liked by people you followed. What your social graph found appealing, the theory went, might also be appealing to you. In 2015, they augmented the explore feed to show you trending hashtags and places, and last year Explore began showing you video channels based on accounts you follow and hashtags you interact with.

Dan Toffey leads Instagram’s Community Lab.
Dan Toffey leads Instagram’s Community Lab.

Dan Toffey (#hikingwithdogs, #linework, #woodturning) was Instagram’s 12th employee and fourth community manager. At the time, that role encompassed everything non-technical, from writing blog posts to handling support tickets to moderating comments. Today, he runs Instagram’s Community Lab, a group of social scientists that use machine learning to explore and catalog the many niche communities that have found a home on Instagram.

Lots of broad hashtags, like #food and #fashion, are among the most popular in countries around the world. Part of Toffey’s work is figuring out what’s unique about the different markets where Instagram exists, and finding ways to highlight and support local communities. Hashtags show, for example, that Germany over-indexes for humor, horses, and video gaming, while Japan favors hairstyles, colors, and simplicity.

“When a follow happens on the platform, two things are happening: the follower is getting a more diverse experience, and the creator has a new fan who is discovering what they have to offer,” says Toffey. “Our hope is that through thoughtful categorization and cataloging of these communities, when combined with things like hashtags, we can improve discovery, and make it easier for you to find what you’re looking for, or what you didn’t know you were looking for.”

Of course, turning hashtags into a more prominent part of the Instagram experience is going to make them a more attractive target for spammers, marketers, and attention-hungry influencers. There is already an entire cottage industry built around tips and tricks for getting yourself featured on Instagram’s explore page, and an ever-evolving cheat sheet of hashtags that users can include if they want a better chance at having their post go viral.

“Instagram has been one of the most vital tools for DEFY, building our brand and reaching new customers,” said Chris Tag, a former creative director at an advertising agency in Chicago who left marketing in 2008 to start his own apparel company. “IG is honestly one of the life-bloods of our brand.”

The company uses hashtags like #handcrafted, #madeintheusa, and #military to find new customers. The process is “akin to how back in the day door-to-door salesman would literally go and seek and new customers by knocking on doors. Some would slam the door in their faces, others were open to what they were about and embraced their brand,” says Tag. “But this is even better, as it's an opt-in community.”

Hashtags that begin as marketing sometimes take on a life of their own. Herschel Supply Co. began using #welltraveled as part of a campaign. The descriptor took off, and now has been used in over 1.5 million posts. Social media specialists like HootSuite advise their clients on how many hashtags to use — five is better than nine — and how to attach yourself to popular tags without looking like a spammer.

Informal cliques known as “boost groups” have emerged, allowing users to trade likes and comments with one another to try. The goal is to push certain posts to the top of a trending hashtag, ensuring they will be seen by a large audience. “I definitely saw a change within a month. I saw a significant change,” said one boost group member, who asked to remain anonymous. “My attitude around social media changed. It was necessary to be seen, to make a profit.”

“It was in vain if you didn’t use any hashtags.”

A boost group didn’t require a huge number of members to be effective, but they had to be targeted. “It was in vain if you didn’t use any hashtags or keywords, because those brought you to the attention of specific communities and rankings,” the boost group member told The Verge. “Every day there would be sharing of insights around what hashtags were trending and worth trying to leverage.” With around a dozen members, this group was able to get their posts to the top of hashtags that had hundreds of thousands, even millions, of posts.

Instagram is quick to acknowledge the challenge. “The fundamental tension there is, you build a product with a surface that gets popular, it’s a high target for spam,” says Krieger. “We will look at signals on both the posting side and the consumption side. Since we know the tap-through rate, the follow-through rate, the scroll-through rate, we can start saying, ‘this was a bad insertion,’ and down-ranking it.”

“On any platform, and especially one of our size, those dynamics are always at play. Something that we’re very firm on is that the safety and health of our community is top priority,” said Ogle. “All that being said, one of the cool things about following hashtags is, for the first time, it gives each hashtag an inbuilt audience, that has a stake in what they’re seeing.”

Instagram has earned a reputation as the “nice” social network, a place that hasn’t been marred by election meddling, hate speech, or child exploitation. User growth on the service is still accelerating, so why rock the boat? The overarching goal, left unspoken, is to have people spend more time the service, and to have them engage more deeply. And as Instagram’s growth has increased, the company has grown more aggressive, not less, about experimenting with new features.

“Can we capture this existing behavior, and make it better?”

“The way we always looked at this was, at the core of Instagram are your friends and the people you love. The service without that would be in a lot of trouble,” says Krieger. “But we’re not just that. We have the next ring out from that, which is interest accounts and aggregators. The next ring out is accounts you might encounter in passing on Explore. Can we capture this existing behavior, and make it better?”

There is a business logic to this as well. While advertising won’t be connected to the hashtags you follow when the product launches today, marketers will undoubtedly want to target consumers based on the interests they are passionate enough to bring into their main feed. “I think it could make sense down the line,” says Krieger. “Relevancy is the number one thing we think about with advertising. I can imagine incorporating the signal, either implicitly or explicitly, in a way that is clear.”

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Instagram knows it’s taking a risk by injecting interests into the main feed, because it’s tried this tweak before. “We experimented with putting the best of Explore into your main feed, but it never felt personal enough,” says Krieger. Adding the ability to follow hashtags, “is a big step change,” he adds, but the company is betting that its systems are now smart enough not to disappoint you.

With the recent launch of Direct, it appears that Instagram may want to carve out a separate experience for messaging, leaving the main app to focus on consumption. “It’s not the kind of app that’s going to have an overflow hamburger menu with 50 options,” says Kriger. “We have a feed, the feed is a user-curated view into the world of Instagram.”

Hashtags are the atomic unit of interest on Instagram

Discover Weekly turned casual listeners into Spotify superusers, and Instagram is hoping that hashtags might hold the same appeal for its users. “Explore is quite honestly one of the reasons I left Spotify and came here. It’s arguably the largest social discovery platform in the world,” said Ogle. Hundreds of millions of people use Explore every day. “To me that’s a strong signal that Instagram is already good at this, and if we lean into it we can do more.”

Today’s update will be a big change to how Instagram works, but Ogle is just getting warmed up. “For me it’s not a silver bullet,” he said, as we munched on our decorative pastries under the pink glow of SuperMoon’s neon sign. “It’s a first step that next year we can layer all kinds of cool stuff on top of, with hashtags as our atomic unit for interest on Instagram.”

Stop motion animation by Michele Doying

Creative Direction by James Bareham

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