Hashtags are typically described as discovery tools. “The best discovery method”, you might hear. “The best way to be found,” someone might say.  But ask yourself – when was the last time you personally clicked on a hashtag? If you’re like me, you don’t click on hashtags very often. You may occasionally, to see where your post ended up in the feed, or to see what’s going on at an event you may not be present for. But on a daily basis? I sure don’t.

What’s the point of hashtags? It’s true, they exist for discovery. But as the amount of social media content has grown, the need to discover it is less important. My feed is already overwhelming enough without needing to go look for more content. If you follow more than a couple of hundred people, your feed is probably is the same way.

Using hashtags does provide a feeling of visibility. Using up to 30 on each Instagram post gives you the emotional security that if someone was to actually search one of those hashtags, you’ve done all you could to make sure your post could be found. But is anyone really searching that way anymore?

What’s actually happening is that we’re all too busy and our current feeds are full enough so we don’t need to do any more discovery. Instead, bots exist. You can sign up for a service that will go through particular hashtags, liking photos and making generic comments on your behalf, saving you time and energy. Sure, someone might be a little confused why you seemingly wrote “awesome picture!” on a post about their dog sadly passing away, but it does get you increased visibility by working faster and more efficiently than you ever could.

Bots also use the technique of following someone, then quickly unfollowing. This makes them show up on the person’s notification screen, so the target user is likely to check out the bot owner’s profile and possibly follow them. This works in the bot owner’s favor – the bot owner shows up on the target user’s radar, thinking they’ve gained a new follower – but they’re actualyl just being manipulated and used.

As a person who often uses 30 hashtags, I recently realized that most of my likes, new followers, and comments are coming from bots. There’s very little human engagement on my posts. Last year around this time, I noticed a drop off of engagement, and started talking about it. Then the bots grew in popularity, and I sort of forgot about this issue because I saw my likes and engagement rising again.

It’s in Instagram’s best interest to allow the bots to continue to function, because then everyone sees increased engagement and that keeps users feeling like their posts get visibility.

I read an insightful blog post yesterday that pointed out how infrequently celebrities use hashtags. And why should they? They already have a solid fan base of followers. They may be using the results of their posts to anticipate future album sales, movie ticket sales, or other projects. However, there’s a sharp difference between number of followers and number of likes or comments a post by a famous person gets. So many of have followers that are spammers or just unengaged users that more than 10 % engagement is huge. Even the best social media posters get likes from 10% or less of their followers. In some cases, they’re getting less than 5% engagement.

Why is this relevant? Here’s the simple truth – don’t measure your success by the number of likes or comments you get. Measure success by the number of people you help. The greatest compliment you can get on Instagram is when someone comments on one of your posts with the @username of someone who they want to see your post. Measure success by the number of people who are willing to share what you’re doing with someone else.  The indication that they found your post valuable enough to share shows you’re building valuable content that’s so relevant and helpful someone decided it would be beneficial for someone they know.

That’s the way to build a community. It’s not about number of likes, or comments, or email subscribers, or any other metric. It’s about building a community of people who get what you’re about. It doesn’t matter if that community was 2 people or 2 million. It just matters that like minded people know who you are, how to find you, and that what you’re doing is helpful.