Monday, 24 June 2013

Hashtags: What? Where? Why?

The Hash or Pound symbol - used to indicate that the connected word is a hashtag
Now that Facebook has finally made support for hashtags live we thought it was high time we looked at what they are and how they work.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word, or phrase, prefixed with the hash (or pound for US readers) symbol.

Hashtags have been around for a long time now, originally being used in IRC in order to group conversations by topic or channel. They became popular thanks to the rise of Twitter, where they were first used back in 2007. Since 1st July 2009 Twitter has been automatically linking any hashtag to a search result for all Tweets flagged with that hashtagged word.

A hashtag allows people to quickly and easily find posts about a topic that they are interested in, no matter if they’re following the person posting the message or not.

Where are hashtags used?

Most social networking sites support hashtags now, they’re commonly seen on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Google+ and now Facebook.

So where do you put the hashtag? Well, that seems to vary from network to network, and person to person. Most users now tend to just hashtag the important word within their post, for example “Check out this great #architecture #photo of #CardiffBay” But there is also a trend to simply write your content and then stick all your relevant hashtags at the end of the post, e.g. “Check out this great photo #architecture #photo #CardiffBay”

Why are hashtags used?

An example of the hashtag as used in a Twitter post - in this case for Royal Ascot
Tapping into this way of engaging in conversations with social networkers all over the world, advertisers, TV programme makers, film makers and musicians are now promoting hashtags in many areas of our lives. When you’re watching a show on TV the presenter may prompt you to take part in the conversation using their hashtag, e.g. #BGT or #QuestionTime. Dramas often now include a hashtag in their title sequence, or may have one emblazoned on their ad break idents e.g. #Continuum or #Broadchurch.

Adverts often feature information on where to find their Facebook and Twitter feeds and will sometimes feature a hashtag to prompt viewers to go online and talk about their product. Of course the marketing use of hashtags has been known to backfire, and there have been some high profile incidents of customer complaints hijacking hashtags created to promote a positive view of a company. This has led to a term called ‘bashtags’ being generated.

Perhaps the most high profile of 'bashtag' incidents was the #McDStories hashtag created by McDonald’s to promote positive customer experiences about the chain. The effort was abandoned after just two hours after  McDonald’s received numerous complaints about the chain rather than the positive stories they were expecting! Qantas experienced a similar hashtag disaster when promoting a Qantas Luxury hashtag to share positive flight experiences with the airline.

An example of an Instagram search based on a hashtag - in this case for the Lake DistrictBut hashtags aren’t restricted just to those created by marketing teams, they were started by – and still used by – the ordinary folk of the Internet. Anyone can make up a hashtag. It might stick and others might pick up on it, it might be a one off. The important thing is that it is used to express what is important about the content of the post by the poster. However, don’t feel obliged to include a hashtag in every post. Just ones that you want to highlight particularly.

Instagrammers have a habit of using a mass of hashtags in order to try and gain followers and likes on their photos. Sometimes this has the effect of spamming hashtags just for clicks, but it’s become part of the way that Instagram works, and it does make it easier to find users with similar interests.

Why has Facebook now started supporting hashtags?

Although hashtags are used by everyone, it’s clear that they have become a big marketing tool and their lack of support on Facebook has pushed a lot of potential marketing revenue towards Twitter where companies can pay to promote their tweets. Supporting hashtags puts Facebook back on an even footing with Twitter, and allows them to angle for more ad revenue.

A lot of social network users are active on multiple networks and there is a growing trend to use apps that will cross-post to a number of social networks, so Facebook has become awash with hashtags thanks to people cross-posting their Tweets and using Instagram to share their photos with friends on Facebook. It seems logical then that Facebook would eventually develop a hashtag search which would support this.

An example of the new linked hashtag search in Facebook - in this case searching for posts about Lincolnshire
We’ve become used to seeking out new acquaintances online via hashtags on Twitter, so why not get involved in the conversation the same way on Facebook? There seems to be a constant battle between the two networks for superiority and perhaps this is one way of Facebook getting their members to use the service more. I know that I’m not alone in fluctuating between the Twitter and Facebook. When I’m watching something on TV that I want to talk to others about, I use Twitter and hashtags, and I’ve had some great conversations that way. Perhaps Facebook’s hashtag support will now get me, and many others, doing the same thing there.