Instagram is giving more power to the hashtag. As of Tuesday, it announced, you can now not only follow people, but hashtags too.
There's some good news and bad news here. Spoiler: it's mainly bad news.
First, the good news. This is quite a nifty feature. I, having completely mainstream hobbies, have been getting really into Japanese pro wrestling recently, so I can now follow the related #NJPW hashtag, and any photo with that tag will automatically come up in my feed. Wunderbar!
If your interests are more niche than me, you may want to populate your feed with tags such as #Brunch, #Football or #Dogs. Or, if you're the thirsty type, you can follow #Fitness. It's OK, we get it.
Now, the bad news. Hashtags are ruining you and everyone you hold dear.
I'm only semi joking. It's well documented that social media can put a damper on your happiness and throw you into a tailspin of jealousy, among other unfortunate side effects. In my estimation, Instagram's hashtag encapsulates social media's most unhealthy parts.
Instagram hashtags made sense at first when the app was more of a showcase for photography than a social network. Now, generally speaking, the only real reason to use a hashtag on Instagram is to get more likes on your photo. More insidiously, it's to get likes from strangers who don't already follow you.
No judgment here. I enjoy likes as much as the next guy. I've been known to add a cheeky hashtag to an IG post every once in a while (#WhiteBeltForLife). But many people take it overboard, spamming their posts with tenuously related hashtags, all for those precious likes: #Smile #Love #PleaseLikeMe #AndMyColumn.
If you take photography seriously, or you're posting about something meaningful to you, it does make sense to try and extend your Instagram beyond your usual circle of followers. But it's different when the photo in question is just some dope (me) getting drunk in a park (my backyard).
In other words, most of our posts are only interesting to us and our friends. But we still try, sometimes far too desperately, to broadcast them to the world.
That's fine, it's not hurting anybody. Except maybe you. A May survey of 1,500 teens and young adults by the UK's Royal Society of Public Health found Instagram to be the most mentally harmful social network out there, thanks in part to the FOMO people get when looking at their friends' feeds.
This makes sense, since your feed is basically a carefully curated highlight reel of your life. The hashtag, and our desire to get likes to out-highlight other people's highlight reels, is one of the reasons social media is such a mental minefield.
On Twitter, people (mostly) use hashtags to join conversations or troll politicians. Some people also use hashtags on Facebook, much to the bewilderment of everyone else on Facebook. But on Instagram, you now have people solely using them to try to game the algorithm and get more likes on their smashed avo toast and turmeric latte.
It's possible Instagram's new move will make the hashtag great again. But it could also do the exact opposite.
Instagram says its algorithm will only add the best posts from any hashtag you follow into your feed, but time will tell how effective that is. It's feasible the platform's attempt to make hashtags matter could actually make them less useful -- unless, of course, you want to see pictures of me drinking in my backyard. #Sun #Happy #YOLO