Everybody knows Instagram is where you present your best self. There’s no better place for the perfect “candid” photo that required four hours and two umbrella lights. Everyone knows brunch always looks two Michelin stars tastier with a Hefe filter. Instagram isn’t real life; it’s where everyone’s a reality star.
Just one tab over from your feed, though, lies Explore, the most honest place on the internet. Explore shows all stuff you might like, plucked from the infinite pool of ‘grams. Unlike your feed, Explore isn’t constrained by who you follow or what you claim to like. Explore watches you use Instagram, and honestly reflects what it sees it in a three-wide grid.
Instagram recently integrated its ephemeral Stories feature into Explore, giving users a peek into the lives of people like them. Today, the company introduces another Snapchat-inspired feature: Stories sorted by location and hashtag, and personalized automatically. Open Instagram and go to Explore, and the first thing you see is a story from wherever you are right now. You can search any location or hashtag and peek inside, as long as at least one Instagrammer has posted something in the last 24 hours. Use a hashtag or a location sticker in one of your Stories and it might appear in an Instagram roundup. This new feature provides a near-live window into your interests and aspirations.
Instagram likes to say it fosters relationships by helping you find people and things you’re interested in. Your feed contains long-term relationships, the stuff you’ve already discovered and committed to following. Search is where you find people and things that interest you. This makes Explore a bit like speed dating—a quick fling to see if you like what you see. “Before you can realize that you like to become the world’s best rock climber, you’d need to know that sometimes people scale sheer granite cliffs,” says Instagram’s director of product Blake Barnes. He calls Explore “that serendipity of understanding what’s out there for you, where there’s something you want to engage with further.”
In the interest of full transparency, I’ll tell you what my Explore page looks like right now: A video of some dude flinging stuff into a pot and calling it cooking; a screenshot of Seth Rogen tweeting that Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake are a prettier version of Rogen and his wife; Steph Curry shooting threes; a Lele Pons video; an old pic of Britney Spears and Sarah Michelle Gellar; Aaron Rodgers helping a kid get out of a final exam; and a photo of a manically grinning guy with a baby in a pot captioned, “Our friend came over to babysit last night. 10 minutes after we left he sent me this pic.” Not much of an intellectual resume, but a fair representation of what I like.
When Instagram launched Explore in 2012, it simply displayed the most popular stuff on the platform. It wasn’t even called Explore—just Popular. The algorithms did consider the like-to-follower ratio (a post with 3,000 likes from a user with 5,000 followers is probably better than 5,000 likes from 5 million), yet Popular was little more than a numbers contest. But that doesn’t scale, something Instagram discovered as it climbed toward 700 million users. “As the community grows and there are more and more diverse perspectives in the world, that popular page is no longer resonates with everyone,” says Barnes.
Now Explore is more like a personal inside joke, a collection of things only you could possibly understand. You can actually see it chase your affections. Watch a bunch of wrestling videos and the WWE comes crashing into your feed. Tap through a few #transformationtuesday posts and Instagram rushes to show you more. In a way, Explore makes delivers the great promise of the internet as a place to find people just like you.
This give-people-what-they-want approach has pitfalls, though. It leads Amazon to flood you with ads for AA batteries after you buy AA batteries, and helped create the Facebook echo chamber. Barnes says Instagram’s mission includes exposing people to new things, not just new people sharing the same 30 Rock memes. “Maybe we know you love puppies,” he says. “Who doesn’t love puppies, right? And every day you come to Explore to see puppies. If we show you nothing but puppies forever, you probably get bored at some point of seeing puppies.” Puppies are safe, though. You won’t turn people away with puppies. Keeping people happy while broadening their horizons is tricky.
Over time, Instagram learned how to use your friends’ tastes to figure out what you might like. If you and a friend follow the same 40 accounts and like everything they post, Instagram might start recommending that you follow your friend’s other accounts. The stuff you share sends a strong signal, too. Many Instagram accounts are topic-based now—@warriors reliably features basketball, while @itsnevertooearlyforicecreamjim offers only memes from The Office. This makes it easier for Instagram to figure out what you like, and share it with others like you.
Making this work requires amassing as much content as possible—the bigger the library, the more likely it is to contain your ideal ‘gram. Stories helps solve that problem by dramatically lowering the barrier for posting. As it gains users, and more ‘grams with more data attached, it offers Instagram countless ways of remixing content and showing it to people.
The latest features make Instagram more fun, especially when you’re looking at Instagrammable places like museums, cool brunch spots, parks, or any big city. And because Stories tend to be so much more spontaneous, it feels more authentic. As Instagram continues personalizing Stories to your tastes, the Explore tab will become the tab through which you see the world—the world as it actually is, not a world seen through Clarendon.