Even before I joined Twitter, I was always fascinated by the hashtag. I’m not sure where my fascination originated but it sounds cool and I definitely like hearing about how it’s becoming part of mainstream culture. I’ve even heard celebrities use the term when talking to audiences, instructing their fans to use social media and hashtag [insert word here].
So what is this hashtag that everybody always talks about? Hashtags are keywords denoted by the pound symbol # and were started by Chris Messina in August 2007. You can see the original tweet here. Twitter can be a wild place and the hashtag was suggested as a way to group tweets related to a certain subject. The idea went viral in just a short time, but I know from speaking with other twitter users, that a lot of them don’t use the hashtags either because they don’t really understand them or realize how to utilize them effectively. Even I have not put any hashtags on my tweets, but that’s just because I’m still getting warmed up.
Tags, however, are not a new concept for digital formats. A lot of sites have been utilizing them long before the hashtag existed on Twitter. They provide descriptive terms about items including blog posts, digital images, articles, stories, websites, etc. In other words, they are a type of metadata that can be used to describe content and offer users ways to search and interact with information. Using a keyword to describe content for search and retrieval is not new to people in my profession, and in fact, has been used by us for a long time in a surreptitious fashion so users would not feel like they were doing extra work. But I like to think that the hashtag has changed the perception of using metadata and made it something popular, effective and cool to use.
Hashtags are often used on Twitter to mobilize people around a certain topic or event. In fact, many people host TweetChats, which are Twitter discussions happening at a scheduled time and get people to participate by adding a specific hashtag to their tweets. This allows people to follow the discussion, otherwise the tweets would get buried in the thousands of other messages being created.
My one real complaint with hashtags, and tags in general, is that they can be so inconsistent. I love that tags can be a free form way for people to interact with their information, but on the other hand, it introduces a lot of errors like spelling mistakes, or too many variations to describe one thing. For example, think of how many ways New York City could be described in a tag: NYC, New York, Big Apple, New York City, NY City, NY, etc… How could you ever search for all of those?
So when you use tags, hash or otherwise, be mindful.
Do you use hashtags?