Popular hashtags, like #sunsets, add context to the images shared on Instagram.
Timely hashtags like those used to document  Hurricane Sandy help to collectively tell a story about a timely event.

Julia Turner recently wrote an article for the New York Times called In Praise of the Hashtag, in which she explored the growth, uses and value of the hashtag on Twitter.  Most interestingly, she argued for the humble hashtag as a sort of literary device, able to communicate sarcasm, irony, self-reference and act as poetic refrain. 

If the Twitter hashtag can transform the written word, I wondered if and how the hashtag works to complement the photographs shared and tagged on Instagram—often referred to as the ‘visual Twitter.’

Instagram first added hashtags in January 2011, three months after the app’s launch. Following Twitter’s lead, this addition allowed users for the first time to label, categorise and sort their photographs. It also provided brands with the ability to promote content.  Cleverly, if Instagram users’ accounts were linked to their Twitter accounts, the hashtags also worked there. 

Unlike Twitter, where hashtags are primarily used to link tweets to a wider conversation, Instagram hashtags are also used to anchor a photograph by contextualising its content, location and place in time.  Some of most popular tags on Instagram (#girl, #cat and #sunset) are representational, identifying the contents of the photograph, while at the same time grouping all these tagged images into a big group album. Then there are the emotive tags that describe feelings associated with the image (#love, #fun, #beautiful). Both act as virtual signposts, adding to the viewer’s experience of the photograph. Location-specific tags (#newyork, #london, #losangeles) identify where the photo was taken, and event tags, often replicated from Twitter (#hurricanesandy, #election2012), provide additional, topical context.  

Hashtags are also being used to define or consolidate user conventions on Instagram. For example, the #latergram tag tells followers that a photo was not taken and uploaded straight away. Unlike representational, emotive or location-based tags, #latergram is good etiquette, and helps the viewer understand that the photo falls outside the ‘insta’ part of Instagram. 

A selection of #latergram photos. 
 A recent #jj daily forum image with a ‘Window’ theme.

Josh Johnson was one of the first users to harness the power of tags through his #jj feed. By setting daily photo tasks based around simple themes (e.g. #love, #summer, #white) Johnson has turned #jj into the unofficial community hub and showcase for Instagram fans.  Incredibly, more than 28 million images have been shared on his tag.  Johnson now has a team of editors to help sort and select images uploaded to the daily photo contests. You can see the daily #jj winner on the Connect front page.

Real world communities have also developed around location-based hashtags. As I wrote about a couple of months ago, Phil Gonzalez created ‘Instagramers’ to help people find and meet users through shared local tags. My local Melbourne Instagramers group relies on the #igersmelbourne tag to identify members, and showcase and coordinate group activities.  In turn, peripheral users are actively participating in the community by tagging their photos #igersmelbourne.

I myself created a hashtag in order to uncover and curate quality photography on Instagram.  Using the tag #instaburb, I conducted an Australia-wide competition to find the best photographs of Australian suburbia, with the winning photos assembled into an exhibition and book.  A few of my favourite photo curators on Instagram include Connect contributor Brad Puet who uses the #wearejuxt to highlight innovative photography. Other interesting curation tags include #volumemag and #emotiondaily.

Some tags are used specifically to highlight innovative mobile photography.
The #volumemag tag is another source for discovering photography on Instagram.

Artists are also starting to explore the conceptual impact of the hashtag on photography. Miss Pixels, a Canadian artist, constructs physical hashtags from 3D lasercut letters.  By placing these real hashtags into her photographs, Miss Pixels explores and challenges the relationship between virtual social networks and the physical world. 

 From Fun in the Sunset – The Hashtag Project©
 From #nightmare – The Hashtag Project©

Brands and advertising agencies continue to experiment with hashtags, searching for a way to reach and retain an audience through Instagram. For example, earlier this year, Levi’s used the #iamlevis to find a fresh face for the brand, while the shoe brand Aldo using the #Aldo tag to give away 500 pairs of shoes.  Tags are also increasingly being used to identify and track a user’s brand affiliation and interests. For example, Radium One is using their own dedicated apps to auction user hashtag mentions back to advertisers. This is one obvious way that Instagram’s parent company Facebook can monetise the app, since its users are already meta-tagging for free. 

Third-party apps are also exploring how tags can be used to reimagine the Instagram user experience. One app, Instatag, is using geo-location to find and present recently used tags in the user’s location, adding another dimension to one’s real world interaction with hashtags.  

Instatag searches recent Instagram hashtags by location.

As the uses of the hashtag expand, a number of challenges have also appeared.  Most problems relate to the abuse of hashtags in order to maximise photo exposure, to increase likes and followers.  The worst example of this is known as ‘tag-bombing,’ where users bulk tag their photos with well-known hashtags (regardless of context) to increase their visibility. As such, the best tags can often become victims of their own success. Even my own #instaburb tag, as it became widely used, started to attract photos unrelated to the theme.  In recent months, it has also become clear that popular hashtags have been targeted by spammers. The easiest way to reduce space is to reduce the use of popular tags.

Clearly, hashtags have become a central part of the Instagram experience and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.  I’m also left to question whether photos uploaded to Instagram really exist if there are no hashtags? Have we become reliant on tagging to caption our images?  Are hashtags the only way to guarantee a degree of permanence to a photography? After all, by tagging your photo you ensure that it can be discovered again and again by anyone interested in a particular tag. I know some photographers who take the opposite path, avoiding hashtags altogether in order to relish the impermanence of a digital photograph. If you have any thoughts on these or any other functions of the hashtag, let us know in the comments section below.

Misho Baranovic@mishobaranovic, has worked as a photographer for many years and is prominent in the emerging practice of mobile photography. His street photography has been exhibited internationally and in 2011 he held his first solo exhibition, New Melbourne, in Melbourne, Australia. He is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group, and the author of iPhone Photography.