More than 300 million people use Instagram. They share more than 70 million photos a day. But for most of us, those gigantic numbers don't mean much: We live in our own little Instabubbles, where we only see images from people we've chosen to follow. And even if other people are sharing great stuff, there hasn't been any obvious way to locate most of it.
Starting today, that's changing. Instagram is launching revised versions of its iOS and Android apps with an all-new Search & Explore feature designed to make finding interesting photos from all over the world—by location, tag, photographer, or subject matter—a whole lot easier. It could have a profound effect on how people use the app, and what they use it for.
Now, it isn't a given that it's a good idea for a social network to stick items in front of its users that they didn't explicitly ask for. (Exhibit A: the ongoing resistance of serious Twitter users to the possibility that the service might mess around with its traditional reverse-chronological feed.) But Instagram is staying true to its historic tendency to implement changes in a subtle, thoughtful manner. The new features show up only if you choose to go to the existing Search & Explore tab—the one represented by a magnifying glass. The rest of the app is unchanged.
But if you do tap on that magnifying glass, you'll find something with little resemblance to the old Search & Explore, which had a rudimentary search feature and some not-especially-compelling recommendations of photos and users. The new Search & Explore, by contrast, offers:
A much more ambitious search feature. You can search for accounts, hashtags, and places, and everything is woven together into one set of results. Search for "Yale University," for instance, and you'll see photos from the school's official account, photos tagged #yaleuniversity, and photos that simply happen to have been taken on its premises.
Trending photos. When there's an outburst of photos with a given tag—#prayforcharleston, #paulmccartney, and #fathersday were trending when I got a sneak peek last week—you'll be able to browse them. Places with geotagged photos will also be able to trend, and the ones you see will skew toward your own location, giving you an idea of what's going on nearby.
Curated content. Editors at Instagram will pick interesting images on a given theme, such as Ancient Ruins, Extreme Islands, and Towering Rocks. New collections will rotate in twice a week.
One thing the company isn't doing is taking immediate steps to monetize any of these new features. While it's easy to imagine opportunities to do so, it isn't even allowing sponsored posts—which are paid for by advertisers—to appear among trending photos.
The new features reflect ongoing deliberation within Instagram about the best way to expose users to more photos they might enjoy. "It was a long process," says Rodrigo Schmidt, the engineering manager in charge of Search & Explore. "If you want to go back to the very beginning, it was about two years ago." At that point, Instagram had a tab called Popular that simply displayed photos based on how often users had liked them. It was easy to game, "and that actually reduced the value of the product," Schmidt says. As a consequence, the Popular tab wasn't all that . . . popular.
The question Instagram was trying to answer all along, Schmidt continues, was: "How can you find content that you wouldn't otherwise see on your feed? It's always about content that's not coming from people that you directly follow." That led to Popular giving way about a year ago to a new Search & Explore tab, based on a more complex algorithm than merely tallying up likes. The features Instagram is launching today build upon that fresh start.
Schmidt says that as the company thought about how to roll all the new features into Instagram, it toyed with adding multiple tabs. In the end, though, it settled on one section, with a search box, a marquee to promote highlights, a section of trending hashtags, and more. And if you tap through to something like a particular trending place, the app isn't doing away with the classic Instagram reverse-chronological feed. Instead, it's providing both a section of "top posts"—chosen algorithmically based on multiple factors—and purely chronological "recent posts."
That's a lot of functionality to cram into one section of an app. Judging from the preview I got, it almost feels like an app-within-the-app—a place to go when you want to take an active role in exploring Instagram rather than just checking out recent photos from the people you follow.
The new ability to view trending hashtags and places is an utterly logical place for the service to go. "Of all the types of recommendations we could have, the one that was most interesting was what's trending now," Schmidt says. "Instagram is all about real time. If you go to your feed, it's the most recent content from the people you follow. Trending has that Instagrammy flavor."
Instagram-esque though it may be, it also opens up new use-case scenarios. If somewhere currently in the news starts to trend, such as Charleston, South Carolina, Instagram might feel like a news app. If the Oscars or the Super Bowl trend, it might serve as a Twitter-style digital water cooler. And the new search feature lets you instantly teleport yourself to anywhere on earth where people take Instagram photos, which makes it useful not only for idle browsing but also travel planning and other sorts of research.
Schmidt, who was visiting New York when I chatted with him, shares a story: "I landed here on Sunday. On trending places, it favors what's trending nearby first. And I saw a number of parks around me that were trending. For Madison Square Park, there were a lot of pictures of barbecue and a concert going on. I was like, 'Oh, this looks like fun.' I just went and spent a couple of hours there. And I wouldn't have known about it otherwise. It's not something I would find on TV, it's not something I would find in the news. But it was very Instagrammy."
If large quantities of Instagram users agree with Schmidt that such anecdotes feel Instagrammy, they'll start to use the app in new ways—and Search & Explore, despite being crammed into one tab, could change the way the world thinks about Instagram.