I wrote a fun look at the use of hashtags on Twitter for Ragan.com. Thanks to Jessi Wortley, Rachel Esterline, Nikki Stephan and Mary Deming Barber for helping me out!
Twitter’s #hashtag: Handy search device, or irksome clutter?
By Ari Adler
Tool is used to mark tweets about anything from #Aardvark to #zoology
Have you #hashtagged your #conference or #hobby on #Twitter yet, or are you #waiting to figure out the #definition #first?
Hashtagging, the practice of putting the pound symbol (#) in front of a word, has become ubiquitous on Twitter. Some tweets seem to exist merely for the sake of hashtagging as many things as possible in 140 characters.
The idea of tagging something isn’t new — we used to do it in file folders and Rolodexes. Now, we’re doing it online at photo sharing sites, within our Internet bookmarks, and, of course, on Twitter. The concept is simple: Label something so you can easily find it later when conducting a search.
“Hashtags are a great way to keep tabs on live events such as conferences, space shuttle launches, or local protests,” said Jessica Wortley (@minij on Twitter), the communications director for a Michigan state senator.
By using Twitter’s official search function, you can easily track an event or a conference as Wortley suggested — as long as everyone involved agrees on what the hashtag is. You don’t need the # for the search, but that symbol indicates the agreed-upon reference.
At the recent Social Media Unconference in Chicago hosted by Ragan Communications, the hashtag “raganunconf” took hold. People tweeting from the event or about the event used that hashtag. It made it simple for everyone involved, in Chicago and worldwide, to keep up with the discussions.
“I love them for events,” said Rachel Esterline (@rachelesterline), a Central Michigan University public relations student. “I think hashtags are great when they are useful. But sometimes I wonder, ‘Why does that have a hashtag?’ ”
She’s not alone.
“I hate when people hashtag random words, like ‘love’,” said Nikki Stephan (@estrellabella10), a public relations professional in Detroit.
There are no rules for hashtags. Anyone can use them for anything. And often the tag used for an event or activity can be quite arbitrary. The first person to push the # key tends to start the trend.
“Hashtags are still so random and overused. I hope they can become more consistent or they gain rules in the future,” said Mary Deming Barber (@mdbarber), a public relations professional from Anchorage, Alaska. “It’s one area Twitter still needs work.”
Wortley said the value of hashtags is clear, but that when they are “used willy-nilly they lose their importance and worth and instead simply become cumbersome and annoying. I’d rather see them be used sparingly, during a crisis or event, than for everyday, mundane topics.”
She has done some unscientific research on this, testing how silly the use of hashtags can be. She recently did a Twitter search on #food. The first five results were the following tweets:
“Lunch: Turkey & mayo on sesame seed roll & diet rootbeer. #food”
“Warming up a pizza #food”
“#food starbuck tea”
“#food #tep Special K & Milk”
“Doing a cleanse. No #beer, #wine, #booze, #coffee, or solid #food until Saturday. Certainly won’t starve, but the cravings might kill me.”
“I was right,” Wortley said. “I learned nothing of importance other than what others were eating, and all that did was make me hungry, not enlighten me. And, really — five hashtags in one tweet alone? When you’re already limited to 140 characters, there’s not much room left to say anything after that.”
Ari B. Adler is a media relations professional with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. He is the communications administrator for Delta Dental of Michigan and an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.