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Why Instagram started banning hashtags (and why it's a bad idea)

Why Instagram started banning hashtags (and why it's a bad idea)

The company eventually backpedaled, but it's unclear whether the censorship worked to combat spammers or only alienated its loyal users.

Though Instagram recently blocked the #EDM and #curvy hashtags, the company quickly reversed course and freed them up, saying it is working on "ways to more quickly restore certain hashtags that have been previously blocked," as well as "ways to better communicate our policies around hashtags."

Though Instagram recently blocked the #EDM and #curvy hashtags, the company quickly reversed course and freed them up, saying it is working on "ways to more quickly restore certain hashtags that have been previously blocked," as well as "ways to better communicate our policies around hashtags."

Policing social media sites is no easy task, because users can post almost anything they want, often without consequence. Other users can report inappropriate content, but it's not possible for social networks to remove every post that violates their guidelines.

Instagram, the social photo-sharing service that boasts 300 million monthly active users and more than 30 billion photos shared, recently banned certain hashtags, including #EDM (for "electronic dance music") and #curvy, because they were frequently being tied to posts with graphic or offensive content. However, there's currently no end in sight for these types of violations, many of which come from spammers, so it's uncertain if Instagram's attempt to crack down will make a difference in the long run.

Why, and when, Instagram blocks hashtags

Instagram said in a statement that it blocks certain hashtags, making them unsearchable, "when they are consistently being used to share images and videos that violate their community guidelines." Instagram's community guidelines include rules against nudity in photos and allow for the removal of content that contains credible threats or hate speech. In April, Instagram also added new guidelines to address posts that promote self-harm, and it banned hashtags such as #thinspiration and #proanorexia, which were perceived as promoting eating disorders. If users come across posts that violate these guidelines, the company says they should report the pictures, block the users and delete the any questionable comments on their own posts.

Though Instagram recently blocked the #EDM and #curvy hashtags, the company quickly reversed course and freed them up, saying it is working on "ways to more quickly restore certain hashtags that have been previously blocked," as well as "ways to better communicate our policies around hashtags."

Estelle Metayer, founder and president of Competia, a strategic consulting firm, says Instagram may not be worried about mere bad user behavior, but also pornographic sites and spammers taking over. Spammers often using hashtags to hack into conversations on social media sites, she says. "By using a popular hashtag, they know that people are following and will see that content."

Metayer says spammers have inserted themselves into social conversation for years, not just on Instagram but on other sites, as well, including Twitter. For example, spammers follow popular events, such as the TED conferences, then use the associated hashtags to promote their services, and not much can be done to prevent the misuse, according to Metayer. For Instagram, "[b]anning hashtags is useless, because the creativity of those spammers and pornographic sites is endless," she says.

Banning Instagram hashtags an exercise in futility

Although spammers can be somewhat contained with various kinds of filtering software, Instagram faces different challenges. "There are other platforms that have photo sharing, but with Instagram, that's all they are," says Jess Harris, founder at Jess Harris Consulting, and content and social media manager at Kabbage.

Temporarily banning hashtags won't keep users from exploiting them again or even using positive hashtags, such as #happy, to create streams of graphic posts. "What Instagram is doing is not going to work," Metayer says "It's going to backfire, because users don't like a company telling them what they should and shouldn't do. By banning it they are actually attracting more attention to it."

There are two sides to this issue that Instagram must address: the internal and the external. Internally, once the controversy blows over, Metayer says Instagram should reevaluate its policies and procedures around censorship and be more diligent about reprimanding users who generate inappropriate images. More specifically, the company should scan images individually to automatically exclude inappropriate posts. Then it should block and close down those accounts and the servers that support them, according to Metayer.

Externally, Harris says Instagram should be more forthcoming with its PR efforts, be more transparent and provide clarifications in its communications, while avoiding "canned" statements. She says the company should measure user sentiment online when it is about to impose a certain ban. For example, the timing of the #curvy ban was unfortunate, she says, because it happened at a time when positivity around body image, especially among women, is on the upswing. "If it doesn't change the way they manage hashtags, then it needs to change the way they are communicating it."

Managing social media can be uncharted territory, even for established organizations like Instagram. Rebellious users, pornographic sites and spammers will find ways to dodge new rules, and companies will continually have to iterate policies and procedures around usage. Luckily for Instagram, temporary hashtag bans probably won't send users running for the hills, Harris says. "People are creatures of habit, so they won't change their usage pattern solely on a social issue, as much as they'd like to think they would."

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