Some people #use #them #for #every #freaking #word; others ignore them altogether. It might leave you wondering: what are hashtags even for? Am I using Twitter wrong if I don’t use them? And are people making fun of me when I overuse them?
Hashtags are a tool on Twitter (and lately other social networks too) that makes it easy to sort tweets by subject and quickly create global conversations. They’re not mandatory if you’re on Twitter, but using them can help you find and participate in worldwide discussions. It is possible to abuse hashtags, and doing so will lead to you being perceived as not savvy or even spammy – but if you stick to relevant hashtags you won’t be bothering anyone.
Improvised Chat Rooms
Hashtags are known today as a “Twitter thing”, but they kind of pre-date the site. IRC networks are made up of channels discussing certain topics, all of which are named with a pound sign (#) and a single word without spaces – #linux, #cats, #worldofwarcraft.
In the early days of Twitter, users borrowed this idea to invent hashtags, combining the rarely used # symbol with the search function to create improvised chatrooms.
Here’s how it worked: prefix a “#” in front of a single word and you create a unique search entity – a hashtag. Anyone interested in this topic can search for the hashtag and find other tweets that include it. In theory, they will also discuss the same topic. This allowed users not necessarily connected to converse about subjects they cared about.
Twitter eventually formalized this informal system, turning hashtags into clickable links that bring up search results. In essence, however, the system is the same as its always been: a quick way to create a conversation in an otherwise decentralized system.
Types Of Hashtags
Hashtags are used for a lot of things, but most of their uses break down into one of four categories:
- Real-time events – information about a breaking news story (#tahrirsquare, #elections), commentary about sporting event (#olympics, #nhl or #nascar) or even just jokes about a TV show (#breakingbad, #himym). These hashtags tend to see a spike of traffic during an event.
- Tweets about a specific topic – less intense, more ongoing conversation. Could be about a niche topic (#linux, #cars) a city (#boulder, #singapore) or generally useful subjects (Twitter hashtags you really need to know).
- A running joke. (#firstworldproblems)
- PR and action hashtags such as #FollowFriday, #McDStories and #2InstaWithLove.
Don’t just use a hashtag because you see it trending: make sure you understand how other people are using it first. This is going to make conversations much, much more likely.
On the Twitter homepage is the “trending” list, which outlines topics widely discussed on the site at the moment. Users can click any of these trending topics – usually hashtags – to instantly see related tweets from around the world.
Users can also use these hashtags to join discussions, if they have something to add. Spambots, and humans who think like spambots, will simply add them to unrelated tweets – and everyone will hate them for it.
Don’t think like a spambot: if you can’t say something relevant, don’t say anything at all.
Proper Hashtag Usage
Hashtags create instant communities, of a sort, and every community develops rules over time. Generally it’s a bad idea to use a hashtag for tweets that aren’t relevant – so don’t add irrelevant hashtags to your tweets in the hopes that more people will see it.
Proper use is important. If commenting on a current event, be sure you have something original to say – or a valid question to ask. Make sure you know what the story is about or you could make yourself look stupid an insensitive, like this stupid marketer who didn’t realize there was a brutal shooting happening in Aurora, Colorado:
Be sure to check out how other people are using a hashtag before using it yourself – it will increase the likelihood of actually interacting with other people.
Marketing Can Backfire
If you’re not active on Twitter you probably think hashtags are mostly a marketing gimmick. This makes sense: every medium from television to billboards seems intent on persuading people to join a discussion on Twitter, and hashtags are the natural way to do that.
Of course, this can also backfire. Part of social media marketing is realizing that you’re not in control of the message, and more than a few hashtags intended to promote a product have ended up being used to mock it. #McDStories, for example, was started by McDonalds itself for branding purposes – but became a medium for complaints about the restaurant.
This isn’t to say using a hashtag for branding is a bad thing, but as with all social media marketing you can’t necessarily control what everyone will say. It’s worth noting that, unlike a Facebook Page, no one controls a hashtag. This means people can and will say whatever they want with it – which is unfortunate if you’ve put that hashtag on a billboard somewhere.
And, of course, there’s a flip side to this. Brands who use hashtags to monitor negative comments and address them can end up looking great – provided they actually learn from the feedback and respond quickly. It’s all about actually engaging with people and not simply trying to game the system for your own purposes.
Of course, hashtags aren’t only useful for Twitter users – they can be used to help you sort your IM, Get Instagram likes, and much more. Read Mihir’s secret way to use hashtags and Nancy’s Instagram tips to find out more.
Like I keep saying: every hashtag is a sort of improvised community. Join in if you have something to say, but don’t think that adding hashtags to your posts will magically make you popular. Hashtags can be useful if you know how to use them, however, so I’m wondering: what do you use hashtags for?
Personally, I like using my local #boulder hashtag to find out what’s going on – and I pitch in tweets about upcoming events in town using it. You might find other communities to participate in, events to discuss, or jokes to get in on. It’s all about exploring and contributing.
Image credit: Anna Creech