Hashtags 101, or the rant I’ve been holding in all year…

CNN’s December 2013 article “Be Gone Selfie! And Take Twerking with You!” set off my pet peeve about hashtag abuse.

While the CNN article is about the over-use of certain new words, not hashtags, it reminded me how frustrated I get when hashtags are misunderstood, misused and generally abused.

  • What’s a hashtag? In practical terms, it’s an internal, aggregating hyperlink on a social media platform.
  • Where can I use hashtags? The primary platforms are Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but I’m going to focus on Twitter because it’s the place where hashtags are most prolific, and most abused.

If you’re a super-consumer and creator of social media, you probably don’t need to read this – I expect that you’ve already figured out how to use hashtags well, across multiple platforms. But if not, this blog post is for you.

Use Hashtags to make connections.

hashtag cildc

I use hootsuite to manage my twitter searches.

If I tweet about a speaker at an event or conference, adding the hashtag is a good way to create “back channel” conversation.  Anyone can click on the event hashtag and find all the tweets that use that hashtag – and anyone with a twitter account can chime in on the conversation, comment on a speaker, share links and cool sound bites, or arrange lunch plans.

In the media / web work I do, using and following event-specific hashtags has become an essential tool for making professional connections. I even save twitter streams based on conference hashtags, in order to follow the planning and process. As a result of following the #cildc (Computers In Libraries, a March conference in DC) hashtag year round, I saw and responded to a tweet last fall asking for more volunteer moderators, and now I’ll be moderating the Tuesday track on User Experience (and attending for free).

I also use hashtags during huge art events like Artomatic (a ginormous month long art show that takes place in the DC area every few years), to talk about the art and connect with other artists. And my friend Jesse Cohen at artDC.com is using hashtags to build connections in the DC art community – in August 2013, he used #WeTweetArt to curate an exhibit of local artists, has continued to create themed shows using tags like #artdcGray, and periodically hosts #DCArtChat.

Hashtags can also just be fun – check out #saturdaylibrarian next time you’re scheduled to work a long Saturday, and you won’t feel so alone. Especially at 6:30 a.m.

So what is hashtag abuse?

Over-use, using them when they’re not helpful, or when readers aren’t looking for them.

I think @WUSA9 does great news sharing on twitter, but they also use unnecessary hashtags.

I think @WUSA9 does great news sharing on twitter, but they also use unnecessary hashtags.

In the beginning, Twitter had a lousy search function, and a lot less users. So hashtagging a simple word like #photos might have been useful if you wanted to connect with other people who like sharing photos.

But twitter’s functionality evolved almost as quickly as the number of users grew, and it wasn’t long before it developed a pretty good platform-wide search. This means that you don’t have to use hashtags to find info if you can search on the actual words people use – saved searches work just as well, if not better. I have saved searches for “Arlington Public Library,” and all of our branch names, which frequently bring me results of people talking about us (but not to us) on twitter – and they catch both hashtags and plain text.

Why is hashtag abuse a big deal?

1. Too many hashtags make your tweets resemble spam.

Every hashtag is a link, as is every user name. And adding a lot of hashtags makes your text much harder to read, and your tweet easier to dismiss.  So if you have to use more than one hashtag in a tweet, increase readability by putting them at the beginning or end, not in the middle. And not both.

2. Unhelpful hashtags bring back too many unrelated results, especially if your tag is broad or geographical.

The hashtag #photos brings back tweets from people taking or editing photos, companies selling photo products, and occasionally people sharing photos. That’s too many ideas for one hashtag to be useful to readers.

Many broad hashtags will also bring back a lot of spammy tweets, and often lead you to even more hashtag abuse:

photos hashtag

No, I don’t think I’ll be clicking on any links you share…

Hashtagging the word #photos in the WUSA9 tweet is also redundant, since anyone who reads the words “photos of great places to eat pizza” already know there are photos involved. The url for the photo, which includes “pic.twitter” is also a sure sign that a photo is attached.

3. Using hashtags for things no one is looking for on twitter is a waste of space and your effort.

Your hashtag won’t help you to reach readers if no one knows or cares to look for it. If I needed to find photos of pizza on twitter, I’d be better off searching the phrase “photos of pizza,” because then I get interesting things like this:

I kind of love this.

This is what makes twitter so much fun.

So if I was in a position to advise WUSA9, I’d suggest that if they think readers want to find or follow all their tweets with photos, they use a hashtag like #wusa9photos instead. They could also do the pizza loving residents of DC a favor by using a geographic hashtag, like #DCpizza.

But none of this means that you shouldn’t experiment with hashtags! I try things on the library twitter feed on a regular basis, and some of them gain absolutely no traction, so I drop them. Just pay attention to how effective they are in creating connections, and proceed accordingly.

There is one other hashtag use that I should mention: the verbal equivalent of the emoticon, which is usually used for humor… #gettingoffmysoapbox 

This post was edited on March 15, 2014, in order to substitute a different example of hashtag abuse. And then it was edited some more, just to make it read better…

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