I finally figured out what hashtags are for

Yesterday I tweeted, “Hashtags may be my biggest pet peeve on the Internet.” I hate hashtags. I think 98% of the time they’re useless and dumb. Most people have no idea how to use them.

Let’s start at the beginning. Twitter user Chris Messina created the hashtag in 2007, inspired by IRC, trying to help people organize their tweets into relative groups.

Hashtags were pretty nerdy for a while, but once political events and news networks covering those events started pointing them out to viewers who were also Twitter users, usage increased and spread beyond politics and early-hashtag adopters.

No one really explained to anyone what hashtags were for or how to use them effectively. As a consequence, today, few people know how to use them!

Let’s look at two bad examples of using hashtags:

The first, the useless hashtagging of random words in your tweet, in the hopes your tweet will be widely seen, and generally because you don’t know how to use hashtags:

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Second (and by far the worst use of hashtags), I don’t even know what to do with this tweet:

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Some people, marketers for example, have specific searches they do regularly for certain words that pertain to their brand on the space in which their brand operates. They want to discover new content or customers through certain tweets, but you have to think strategically about what people are monitoring.

Realistically, no one is really searching #app or #mobile or #design or #love or anything that general, really. They’re too noisy and no one whose content you really want to see is using those hashtags to extend the reach of their content.

Hashtagging random words is a behavior that needs to stop because it doesn’t do anything but dilute your message and make your tweet ugly!

So when you write a tweet like:

Such an #amazing #summer day with my #bestfriends! I love #Colorado.

Just take all the hashtags out (and add a space between ‘best’ and ‘friends.’)


After a few conversations over Twitter, I figured it out:

Hashtags are for events! (And that’s it!)

Two great examples:

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In the first, Ben uses a hashtag to make sure his tweet was included with several thousand related to Big Omaha (one of the the best conferences around). In the second, Wendy also groups her thought into the Big Omaha collection but in a natural language-y way that actually makes sense!

Both are attached to an event which exists for a temporary period of time and in this case, it makes sense to use some sort of grouping thing here!

Egypt uprising. The Super Bowl. Forest Fires. Conferences. A Fourth of July party at a ranch in the middle of a landlocked state.

Hashtags work for every single one of these because it helps people meet one another and capture thoughts, links, media, and conversation related to that thing that occurred temporarily in time and space.

When that event is done, you have the hashtag to click on and go back to the people and thoughts of that period of time, that exist like a little digital time capsule.

Your hashtag should add content to a group with a very high signal and very low noise.

It’s as simple as that. Think of hashtags for time-based events instead of general categories that you tweet might fall into.

And please, practice hashtagging responsibly.

 
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