Have you always thought of hashtags as the most annoying phenomenon in the history of social media, refusing to include them even in your informal communication? Or have you been in the other camp, using #hashtags to #commemorate #every #event in #yourlife #farbeyonditsactualorrelativeimportance? I sympathize with the former group myself, having spent most of my Twitter tenure as a hashtag curmudgeon. But, whichever position you align with, I have good news and bad news. The bad: none of you know how hashtags work, and you’re losing important opportunities because of this. The good: you are about to learn everything you never knew about the origins and proper use of the ostentatious octothorpe.
The Surprising History behind Hashtags
In the sixties, when technicians at Bell Labs in New Jersey were assembling the first telephone dial pads, they needed a name for the strange symbol they were about to include. Don McPherson gets credit for naming it the “octothorpe.” While Americans took to calling it the “pound key,” the British persisted in calling it a “hash,” so as not to confuse it with their own pound symbol.
This symbol was already familiar, having been on typewriter keys since the early 20th century. Beginning in the 1970s, the typewriter eventually gave way to the interactive computer keyboard. The pound key kept its place as the alternate function of the number 3 and quickly found usefulness with the development of the Internet. The hashtag, as the symbol is now called, has been used online since the eighties. Its original purpose was simply to organize information. The users of Internet relay chats could search a keyword that had been tagged with a pound sign and find what they were looking for.
This symbol was still referred to as a pound sign when tech expert Chris Messina suggested using it to tag related tweets. Despite a dubious reaction from Twitter, Messina got journalist Nate Ritter on board as he covered the 2007 San Diego fire with the related hashtag “#sandiegofire.” Seeing a future for this reporting technique, Ritter partnered with the new site Hashtags.org, which still covers Twitter trends today. The term “hashtag” is said to have been invented by blogger Stowe Boyd in this iconic post, as he discussed the symbols’ burgeoning usefulness. Twitter finally began to acknowledge their potential. Once officially adopted, hashtags took on a life of their own, especially when Twitter’s “Trending Now” hashtag sidebar appeared in 2010. Now they’re a ubiquitous phenomenon that seems to have infiltrated every aspect of communication. But is that bad?
- Trying to connect every barely-relevant concept to your post. This ends up with you adding tags like #thomasedison to your photo, just because it contains a light bulb.
Alternative: Instead of grasping for connections, pick out three or four prominent aspects of your picture or post, and write tags specific to them.
- Putting more than a handful of tags, for any reason.
Alternative: You don’t need to tag every other word or hit your picture’s tag limit to make your post searchable. Focus on tagging the qualities that you most want your post to be known for. Think of the main concepts that you would be likeliest to search if you wanted to find a post like yours, and just tag those.
- Co-opting an established tag that someone else started to fundraise for charity, inform others about a social justice movement, etc., while you’re just using it to promote yourself.
Alternative: Research every tag before you use it—especially if you’re tempted to jump on board just because it’s trending. This will save you a lot of embarrassment.
How You’re Already Behind if You’re Not Making Hashtags Work for You
Hashtags have many more applications than meet the eye. They’re not just great for organizing metadata, although that was their earliest and most recognizable use. They can also help you communicate within specific interest groups, use a unique message to market your business, and even play word games. Here are some suggestions for next-level hashtagging that will position you as a social media pro.
- Carefully select your tags according to the optimum number for the social network you’re using. Too many or too few tags may make your content less shareable, and the best number varies by network.
- Use specific, recognizable tags that people will want to retweet and repost when you’re marketing your business. Now whenever someone searches your tag or clicks on its link in someone else’s tweet, they’ll find all your relevant information in one thread.
- Don’t focus solely on your marketing efforts — make it a priority to get your name out there so that you’ll be more recognizable later. People are more apt to trust the promotions of someone who has already built a solid following and uses a consistent voice.
- If consumers use your branded hashtag to criticize you or ask awkward questions, respond gracefully and quickly. Encourage those who have been truly inconvenienced to contact you personally with details of their experience — this will weed out a lot of the trolls.
- Hack the search capability of your personal communications by tagging things that you want to be able to find quickly later. (This is especially useful for Google users, and it helps to prevent multiple requests for someone to resend information.)
Hashtags are ready and willing to be your best friends in the swirling oceans of uncategorized online media. Their overuse has given them a bad reputation among the technologically elite, but that doesn’t negate their extreme usefulness. As long as you employ them sparingly, use specific keywords that position your content prominently in search results, and use tact when adopting others’ established tags, you’ll be in good shape.
What’s your hashtagging strategy? Have you learned the hard way how not to use hashtags? #TalkToUs.