Every day, somewhere between 300,000 and half a million photos are uploaded to Instagram with the hashtag #love.
Late last week, those photos passed a particularly special milestone as the one-billionth photo tagged with #love was added to the photo sharing network.
Based on a wholly human (i.e. subjective) analysis of many thousands of posts tagged with #love over the past 12 months, the most common themes amongst Instagram posts tagged with #love are (in no particular order):
- Friendships & Couples
- Requests for Followers
- Illustrated Quotes
- Pets & Animals
- Fashion & Accessories
- Beauty (Make-Up & Nail Art)
- Food, Cafés & Restaurants
- Travel Photos
The themes alone don’t explain the full picture though; for that, we need to dig a little deeper, and interpret what we see.
#Love, Love Me Do
The most startling finding was the one that was most obvious when we started exploring the hashtag stream.
The majority of photos tagged with #love seem to be people searching for ‘love’ – or at least people hoping to attract other people’s attention, admiration, recognition, or lust.
Our interpretation of this behaviour is that people don't go to Instagram (or social media more generally, for that matter) to discover new products; they go there in the hope of being discovered themselves.
Because of this, most people are behaving in the same way that brands behave in social media: they're posting content about themselves – notably selfies – in hope that other people will 'like' them (and comment, and share, and follow…).
What we found most interesting is that many of these #love posts appear to be attempts to deal with individual insecurities. They appear to address needs that sit squarely in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy (Esteem Needs and Love & Belonging Needs):
The key observation: people are using the #love hashtag to address their need for personal affirmation.
When you think about that, it's not really very surprising; everybody wants to be loved.
However, we were surprised by the way that this need has translated into the use of a hashtag that we’d expected to be more about the expression of a present emotion (e.g. “I love…”) than the desire to fulfil an absent emotion (e.g. “I want to be loved”).
There are, of course, numerous examples of things people do ‘love’ – their partners, their friends and families, pets and animals, and celebrities – but the overwhelming majority of posts seem to fall into the category of fulfilling absent emotion than expressing present emotion.
The Naked Truth
What’s more, many people using the #love hashtag seem willing to go to extreme lengths to attract other people’s attention.
Roughly 3-5% of all posts tagged with #love are selfies involving nudity – male and female. If you want to verify this for yourself, do note that some of the pictures are particularly sexually explicit. They're not for the faint-hearted, and they’re definitely NSFW.
Shock-value aside, it's worth making an important distinction here between 'nude selfies' – which appear to be individuals’ attempts to get other people's attention – and outright porn, which usually includes links to third-party websites. Our analysis suggests that individuals posting selfies in various states of undress outweigh 'porn' by a significant margin.
As a platform, Instgram doesn't permit images containing nudity, but as you might expect given this volume of uploads, it can take some time before offending pictures are removed.
Tell Me I’m Beautiful…
People often use the #love hashtag together with photographs of make-up and nail-art too. What’s most interesting about these photos is that there are considerably fewer mentions of brands than I’d expect.
There appear to be two key motivations behind beauty-oriented posts. The first is closely related to the theme we saw above, where people are looking for the affirmation of others through their activities – the posts almost seem to ask ‘what do you think of me in this make-up’, without necessarily asking the question directly.
The second motivation is more marketing-related, but it’s generally about selling a make-up or nail artist, rather than the products they sell. This may be determined as much by the sheer volume of posts shared by individuals versus brands, of course, but the findings are nonetheless interesting and valuable to marketers hoping to understand their audiences.
…Tell Me I’ve Got Style
One of the most frequent hashtag correlations we identified was between #love and #ootd (i.e. outfit of the day). Fashion more generally seems to overlap neatly with the #love hashtag, but as with the Beauty theme above it appears that the person posting the photo is more interested in demonstrating their own sense of style than necessarily calling out specific brands.
On a related note, it’s worth highlighting a significant number of posts of people in revealing outfits or underwear. There’s a fine line here that merits some further exploration though, namely the balance between the opportunity for self-expression and the potential for people to make decisions they’ll later regret, or even the risk of exploitation.
(Don’t You) Wish You Were Here?
Even when it comes to product- and brand-related posts, there's still a tendency to use the #love hashtag to call out things that the ‘poster’ expects other people to love, as much as what they themselves love.
For example, when it comes to travel, there’s a strong tendency towards envy-inducing shots: beaches at sunset, amazing hotel rooms, spectacular landscapes.
The same is true of most photos tagged with #food: there’s a tendency to post impressive meals that the individuals have prepared themselves (the desire for acknowledgment), or that they’re enjoying in special locations or restaurants (a trigger for envy).
Whilst these posts are perhaps less narcissistic than selfies, they still seem to demonstrate that constant need for the recognition and envy of others.
So what can marketers do with this information?
The answer lies in understanding the motivations that drive this behaviour, not simply in being able to track the behaviour itself.
That many people have a constant need for a self-esteem boost shouldn’t come as a shock to any of us, but it’s interesting how so few brands are fulfilling that need. Indeed, with their own constant attempts to get noticed and attract ‘likes’, most brands in social media are demonstrating the same insecurities themselves.
The big opportunity for brands in all of this is to understand how they can provide what these people need.
Brands could interpret that in two ways, though. One route would be to adopt the Dove approach, addressing the insecurities that drive the behavior in the first place.
The alternative would be to offer the recognition and affirmation the people using the hashtag seem to crave.
Either way, with half a million new #love posts a day, there’s plenty more left for marketers to learn from this incredibly popular hashtag.