A funny thing recently happened to a friend of mine on Instagram. She had spent a few weeks searching for baking inspiration in the form of cakes, brownies, and biscuits (as one does on the 'gram). When she went to her Explore feed, she was expecting to find it full of similarly frosted treats. Instead, it was full of weed.
There's an explanation for this: It seemed that Instagram's Explore algorithm had misinterpreted a few mistaken taps on pot brownies (or maybe it was clicking on #baked that did it), to mean "let's plant a 420 party" on this page. My friend reported seeing an endless scroll of joints.
This isn't really Instagram's fault, but it is an unintentional error that can occur when you have a machine-based algorithm in place. At its core, the Explore tab and the algorithm behind it exist to expose users to new photos and profiles they might like, based on the interests they've already expressed elsewhere on the app. For example, it considers who you follow and which photos you like. (You might remember that before there was Explore, there was Popular, a tab that launched in 2012 and showed, as its name implied, the most popular photos on the app at any given time.)
When the Explore algorithm gets things right, the result is a marvellous mix of all your diverse interests represented onscreen. Mine, which is pretty close to perfect, tends to show me lots of cute dogs, artfully shot tech products, and limited edition trainers. However, when the Explore algorithm gets things wrong, as it did in my friend's case — she really did want to see the flour, sugar, and chocolate baked alternatives — you can actually take steps to correct it.
Instagram has put a solution in place as a safeguard for when the algorithm makes a mistake: If you tap on a photo in Explore that you don't like, click the ellipsis in the upper right hand corner. Select "see fewer posts like this" from the menu that appears along the bottom of the screen.
That particular image will be removed from your screen (there's also an option to select "undo" if you've done so in error), with Instagram's promise it will "show fewer posts like this from now on". Although an Instagram spokesperson says this won't change your feed immediately, feedback over time will help your Explore tab evolve. Following hashtags can also help you curate your feed.
I would not recommend following the path my friend took: She spent weeks trying to game the algorithm, only clicking on photos and accounts that could not be related to pot in any way. It's logical and proved successful, but was unnecessarily time and labour intensive. It was work that could have gone into baking a cake, instead.