Any wannabe influencer knows that if they want to gain enough followers to earn entry to the world of Instagram #sponcon, they need to use hashtags. Not only does using a hashtag make posts more searchable, it also allows someone to identify their content with certain groups (i.e. #eeeeeats for foodies and #streetstyle for fashionistas).
But it's easy for hashtags to make posts come across as inauthentic and obnoxious, especially when posts have dozens of them. The workaround used by most influencers — adding hashtags to a comment below the post or using periods to create spaces and separate hashtags from the main copy — is just that: A workaround. It is not necessarily an effective fix.
Soon, there could be a better solution. Computer science student Jane Manchun Wong spotted a test of a new Instagram feature that appears to let you add hashtags when creating a post, without those hashtags showing up in the post itself. The Verge was the first to report on Manchun Wong's finding. It isn't her first: She also also discovered a test of a feature that lets someone limit their posts to specific countries. (Instagram declined to comment on either of the apparent tests.)
While hiding hashtags would helpfully declutter posts, it could also lead to some issues. The most obvious is transparency. Even though Instagram introduced a tool for influencers to tag a business partner (i.e. identify their post as branded) in 2017, many still rely on hashtags to denote sponsored content, with #sponsored or #ad being the most popular.
The FTC has previously issued warnings to those who fail to do so — Kim Kardashian West has been at the center of disclosure controversies before — but the landscape of social media product endorsements is still very new and unregulated. If rolled out, the hidden hashtag feature could complicate matters, making it more difficult for users to know when someone is being paid to post.
This wouldn't be the first time Instagram has reconsidered the role of hashtags on the platform: In late 2017, the app introduced ways to follow hashtags and in March it made it possible to add hashtag links to bios. Both features made hashtags more visible, rather than less, which makes speculation about a hidden hashtags tool somewhat surprising.
It's probably just a test for now, but does raise some interesting questions about what a social media world without visible hashtags would look like.