Hashtag this


Two weeks ago, Facebook rolled out hashtags across their enitre platform. With the hashtag long-established on other platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and (Facebook-owned) Instagram, it was a long time coming.

Of course, hashtags appeared on Facebook regardless; blasted into status updates by cross-posting from other platforms like Twitter or Instagram. This practice annoyed many, leading to such Facebook pages as This is not Twitter. Hashtags don’t work here. Well, that was true, until around about two weeks ago.

Like Hand

Image: Like via flickr.com/catspyjamasnz

A Facebook hashtag was just an inert piece of text. Until now.

I have long been fascinated with the function and form of the hashtag, on Twitter and my other social haunts like Flickr and Instagram. I don’t imagine many Reckoner readers are unfamiliar with hashtags but just in case…

Hashtags are perhaps best described as a metadata tag – a keyword or label that describes the artefact it is attached to, whether that artefact is a tweet, a picture or a Vine video. These keywords are preceded by a hash sign (#), making it clear to other users that this word has special significance. One of the reasons I love hashtags is because they were created by the community, for the community. There was a problem—we couldn’t find each other in this firehose of information—and hashtags solved the problem.

Early use of hashtags points to this suggestion from Google engineer Chris Messina in 2007, based on the use of the pound sign in IRC forums. The convention was quickly adopted by Twitter users. It wasn’t until July 2009 though that Twitter added links to a hashtag, automatically grouping messages with the same #hashtag in them—one of many actions by Twitter in response to a community behaviour.

Over time, Twitter found a way to turn the popularity of hashtags to its advantage. It began tracking the use of hashtags and listing the top hashtags in a prominently-displayed Trending list. This opened the door to sponsored hashtags. And so, advertising dollars. During the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney became the first political candidate to buy a hashtag, #RomneyRyan2012, leaving the Twitter community a little bemused that a community initiative was co-opted by marketing teams.

Image: Joyce via flickr.com/catspyjamasnz

Let’s get together

So why the love for hashtags? Well, I believe they are an essential function of social networking systems that enables networked conversation and information sharing. In a society driven by information, those two skills will be keys to success (or even survival) in almost any job. They have the power to lead to interactions among strangers and pull people together into communities; making use of the strength of weak ties.

Weak ties are a concept was coined in 1973 in a seminal paper by Johns Hopkins sociologist Mark S. Granovetter to describe loose social connections between people. Recently, the term has taken on a new relevance in our socially-networked present. A key requirement of weak ties is an open network; when you have set your Twitter, Instagram or other accounts set to private, your contributions will not be seen in the wider stream. This immediately cuts down your ability contribute (& to leverage) your weak ties.

Napier, New Zealand

Image: Sandcastle via flickr.com/catspyjamasnz

Small town, big community

Let me illustrate—I worked as an education technologist in a small rural polytechnic in the most beautiful place in New Zealand, and one of my roles was to look after the administration of our Moodle learning management system. Now I’m a good e-learning designer, and fair staff developer, but definitely not an expert system admin.

However, through the global Moodle Twitterstream, I was able to keep on top of the buzz and learn from experts in the field. I would see tweets from Moodlers I followed and also those I didn’t follow, as long as they used the #moodle hashtag. This meant I could also post a question to that wider #moodle community and usually get a pretty prompt response.

In a small, isolated organisation with only a few people working on Moodle (and therefore limited expertise), I was able to use my weak ties to my advantage. I could turn to experts who were hacking Moodle on a daily basis for immediate support—an absolute lifeline for my work at the time.

When people use the same hashtag, they are all drawn into the same conversation, which allows those with similar interests or issues to connect. I’ve loved how hashtags have enriched both the professional and personal experiences I have had since I joined Twitter in November 2007. Let me share some.

Christchurch Cathedral during #eqnz

Image: Christchurch Cathedral via flickr.com/catspyjamasnz

Hashtags in crisis

The use of hashtags for social good was brought home for me on the morning of 4 September 2010. A massive earthquake tore through the Canterbury province of New Zealand. I was on the North Island (the other island) but woken by the earthquake nonetheless and immediately grabbed my iPhone. Within a few minutes I saw tweets from people in and around Christchurch. It was a 7.4 earthquake and it had destroyed buildings, roads and power and telephone lines.

Within 30 minutes the #eqnz hashtag was established as the main hashtag. It remains in place today (three years later) as an active community by those affected by the earthquake, through two more damaging earthquakes, countless aftershocks and now, a slow rebuild of a city that has fallen.

My good friend @lizapotts has been researching the use of social media in crisis situations for a long time. She has an upcoming book Social Media in Disaster Response, in which she calls for better platforms to support social media use in crises. When you miss a particular tweet about your favourite TV series, that is annoying, but missing essential information about shelter, food and water in #eqnz, #sandy or the Queensland floods, is much more serious.

Pencil chat

Image: #pencilchat via flickr.com/catspyjamasnz

Yo, anyone out there feel the same?

In December 2011 #pencilchat took the educational Twitterverse by storm. Started by John Spencer, it was a short-lived (but highly entertaining) few days, as education technology champions lampooned some of the technology resistance they dealt with in their schools and universities, through a clever allegory: bringing pencils as a new technology into the classroom.

The joke wouldn’t have worked if the education community hadn’t already adopted the suffix -chat to group educational conversations, like #edchat, #ukedchat (for those in the UK), #specialedchat etc.

I’ve just learned how to use the chalk and blackboard *they* installed in my room. Now pencils! #pencilchat

— Ben Grundy (@bgrundy) December 2, 2011

Our school desktop pencil suite is one of the best. We don’t go for this handheld mobile nonsense. #pencilchat

— Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) December 2, 2011

A more sustained example of educational support can be found on forums like #phdchat where PhD candidates share their woes and triumphs. This is an interesting tag as the community uses it synchronously and asynchronously. They have one-hour weekly or monthly chats guided by volunteer facilitators, hosted here in Australia by @thesiswhisperer, but the rest of the time it is a place where the community interacts with each other.

TV <3 #

This phenomenon, a form of second screen viewing, has a shining example here in Australia: #qanda used every Monday night during the current events program Q and A. Viewers are encouraged to join the discussion on Twitter & ABC shows selected tweets in a ticker during the show. I highly recommend you follow the Twitter stream on the second screen, as the tweets that are broadcast are quite … safe.

The #qanda production team doesn’t take themselves too seriously though. Take this gem from last Monday. It was tweeted half an hour before the show started, and shown as first tweet of the night as Tony was still introducing the guests:

I’M OUTRAGED! just getting in early on #QandA

— hi_Richard_hi (@hi_Richard_hi) June 24, 2013

If #qanda is not your cup of tea, then try #rockwiz or #missfisher when they come back around on TV again. These are all examples of Australian live streams which are pretty quiet when the program is not on, but what about others.

In many cases, like Game of Thrones, a global community of viewers still take to these streams to share their feelings, and in the case of the #RedWedding voice their sorrow, many days or weeks later. As a lifelong nerd, I read about the Red Wedding about 10 years ago, so I’d been waiting all season for this moment. #smugness.


Image: #buzzwordbingo via flickr.com/catspyjamasnz

ugh, so wrong #conference

This almost deserves an entire article by itself, as this is where I’ve seen the most instances of people who think they get it, getting it completely wrong. A planned event is eminently eligible to be enhanced by a hashtag. It allows the attendees to find each other beforehand, set up face-to-face meetings or prepare for the event.

During the event, it’s designed to facilitate a wider conversation between participants, making use of all the knowledge present at an event, rather than just the speakers on stage and those brave few souls who get to fit in a question during the 5 mins question time. Post-event, participants can easily round up info, pictures, videos & posts reflecting on the event. However…

Too often conference organisers don’t decide on a hashtag early enough, or announce it too late, leading to the community coining different hashtags and creating diluted information streams. Or they create a conference tag that is horribly unwieldy!

I recently attended an edu-conference which was otherwise excellent, but the hashtag consisted of three acronyms and a date, for a total of 14 characters. Include a shortened link & you are left with a very short space to add context indeed.

What not to do

So as we can see, there are many applications for hashtags, but there are pitfalls in coining a hashtag. If you are leading an event, a community or conversation, avoid the following:

  • hashtags that are too long,
  • hashtags that are just a jumble of letters, that no one will ever remember,
  • hashtags that use a date, giving your community a shelf-life of exactly one year (often compounded by a twitter account with the same problem)
  • a phrase in which every word is a hashtag (#these #are #the #worst #and #are #akin #to #using #a #different #font #for #each #word)
  • a different hashtag on different platforms

I hope that wider adoption of hashtags will have benefit all of us in the end, but with great power, comes great responsibility. One thing is for sure, with Facebook’s maximum length for a status update, we havent seen #theendofinterminablehashtags.