When Instagram first launched in 2010, it was primarily a place for photographers. As anyone who spends subway rides tapping through Stories and scrolling through Explore knows, the app has expanded far beyond that community over the past seven years.
While photographers certainly still use Instagram, they're just one of the many groups that have found their place within your Explore feed. These days, there's a lot more to see including images of the obscure (slime), beautiful (floral design), captivating (3D motion graphics), and action packed (obstacle course racing).
The trouble with delving into this cabinet of curiosities is that while you can spend hours scrolling down an Explore rabbit hole, it isn't all that easy to discover new communities that the Explore algorithm doesn't show you. Plus, there are plenty of times Explore doesn't produce content that's relevant to you. A good friend of mine, for example, was into baking accounts, but found lots of other, less applicable (and less legal) "baked" goods in her Explore feed.
These are the problems Instagram is hoping to address with a new update, which promises to transform your feed, Stories tray, and Explore. Starting today, you'll be able to follow hashtags related to whatever hobby, sport, or bizarre trend you like.
Here's how it works: Search for a specific hashtag or tap one that's been added to a comment on a photo or video. You'll be taken to a "follow" page that looks identical to the one you see when you go to an individual account. On a hashtag account page, you'll see top recent posts as well as suggestions for other related hashtags to follow. Tap the "follow" button to begin following that hashtag account.
Instagram is taking a smart approach to rolling out the feature: Just because you follow a hashtag, it doesn't mean you'll be bombarded with a feed full of hashtag accounts. Currently, you'll see a post from a hashtag account appear about every eight to 10 photos, in order to still prioritise posts from the friends and brands you already follow. Any Stories from the hashtag accounts you choose to follow will also be spaced out in your Stories tray.
One of the challenges of a hashtag following feature is that many people add hashtags to photos where they may not apply. Instagram says machine learning will work to sort through hashtags, surfacing only those that are relevant in your feed. Of course, hashtags can also be subjective, which is why you'll be able to tap the three dots that appear in the upper righthand corner of a post to indicate that you'd like to be shown less of a certain type of photo for that hashtag account.
Your Explore feed will become even smarter as it learns what trends and hobbies you're into from your hashtag follows. If you want to see which hashtags your friends or public figures follow, you can do that, too. Simply go to their account page, tap "following", and select the "hashtags" tab. It's an easy way to find other hashtags you may want to follow for inspiration.
The same privacy settings for an individual account will apply to hashtag accounts, meaning that if your account is private, any posts you add hashtags to will not appear in the public account for that hashtag. Whether you choose to make your feed slimy, sparkly, or completely lit, is a choice all your own.