Once every week or two I get a random heckle in the comments of one of my Instagram pics. Nothing hurtful, just a gentle ribbing about the number of hashtags I habitually slam straight in there after posting each pic. Sometimes I’ll bite and explain myself, but you know what? While I could ramble on about data and social media strategy every time the discussion starts up in a random thread, I could also just write an article explaining the thinking and method behind the hash-madness and be done with that particular troll-fest forever.

Before we get into things, the astute will likely notice that Instagram is the only social media platform I use the controversial little hash-bastards on. I’ve gone on record saying that hashtags in Facebook is not only lame but pointless for us as users (useful for top-down corporate marketing only, not ground-swell or sharing) and on pretty much every other social media out there I find them cluttering, irritating, and over-used.

But Instagram? Hell, I don’t just use hashtags – I pile them on like they’re going out of style. 

The ‘why’ is simple, every excuse I have for doing so boiling down to one core reason:

1. Instagram, as opposed to most other photography platforms, doesn’t give you a neater way to add metadata to your photos.

Okay, fine. But what does that mean in practice? 

  • If you take a picture of a boat, people looking for pictures of boats won’t find yours unless you’ve hashtagged it #boat in your comments or description.
  • There’s no way to add in keywords (or longer/hidden description) anywhere else, and even if you could, the only way to organize or filter at all on IG is via hashtags. They haven’t built anything else in (yet).
  • Without jumping on the hashtag bandwagon specifically on IG, you’re essentially only using IG as your personal library, viewed only by yourself and the friends who can be bothered looking through all your photos, or the photos you have specifically chosen to share on Facebook / Twitter or wherever else.
  • Within the platform itself, no hashtags means no discoverability, and no discoverability less internal sharing, and the platform as a whole becomes somewhat internally weaker.
  • If follower-count is important to you, you should definitely be hashtagging. You can build whatever following you like outside IG, but you’re missing out on an important way of increasing your broadcast pool if you neglect the tags. 
  • As there are no other methods of structure (i.e. things like Facebook “Groups”, or some way to sort your list of followers into categories or ‘favourites’) hashtags have also become a way of aligning yourself and your feed with people or groups who share a similar interest. (For instance, see the #JJ community) There is no other facility to do this within the app other than hashtags.

What starts becoming apparent when you look at it that way is that Instagram has designed a slightly flawed system. Hashtags are not everyone’s cup of tea – often hated – but what IG has done is built a system which only works to its fullest potential once every user is not only hashtagging but doing so prolifically. They must have made the decision at some point to only allow for visible, cluttering hashtags to be the only way to insert meta-information into your contributed pics, and I’m sure they had their reasons. I wish there were other options, because even the amount of hate I cop for regularly throwing in 5-10 descriptive keywords (a standard amount if you’re being diligent about it over at Flickr or Getty, or anywhere else) would not exist at all if I had another outlet for my “we should all be contributing clean, organized data” OCD.

I’m not saying that everyone hoping to find social media stardom using the Instagram platform needs to tag. Certainly not. Most people don’t care either way and “why bother?”. Others have an existing tumblr site which steadily feeds their follower-count. Some people are just amazing photographers and have found their way onto the front page just by being awesome. But for the rest of us? Tagging, and as a rule, the more the merrier.

My own goals with anything online and broadcasty is always to get stuff out there with an exclamation point with as little effort as possible. Every photo I post on IG I quickly throw a few descriptive keywords into the comments for. Add to those a couple of community tags, then a couple of ultra-popular “discoverability” tags which are likely to bring in a few strangers. Often as the final step, one more random tag which is only there for fun and for a “Wow… I can’t believe someone else has used that hashtag for ANYTHING” moment for some user to discover down the track. Sometimes I go a little long (I found out the hard way that IG limits you to no greater than 30 hashtags per comment) but most of the time I settle into a fairly standard block of 20 or so.

It works for me. People find my stream. People find the stuff I’ve taken photos of that they’re specifically (or geographically) interested in. Other IG users appreciate the shared the love in the communities I hash-link to. My follower count steadily rises. My data is cleaner, the Internet is a more organised place, and people do indeed get to see yet another photo of my lunch with a neat hipster filter applied… (and isn’t that what it’s all about?) 

But hey, whatever floats your boat…