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

Lauren Brousell | Aug. 13, 2015
Instagram recently made a controversial decision to ban select hashtags associated with inappropriate posts, but the company eventually backpedaled, and it's unclear whether the censorship worked to combat spammers or only alienated its loyal users.

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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