A Look at the Current State of Hashtags

By: 9th December 2013 Digital Marketing, Social Media No Comments

By now, most people who use the internet know what a hashtag is (even my own mother!), or have at least heard of them. This is mostly due to an increasing number of people using social networks with hashtag functionality, as well as more and more organizations integrating them within their marketing campaigns. I first began using hashtags when I joined Twitter in 2008. It’s interesting looking back 5-ish years ago, when these were only used by “social media early adopters”, whereas today, it seems like every time I turn on my TV someone is telling me to hashtag this or that. Obviously, a lot changes in tech over half a decade, and keeping up with how hashtags have evolved and spread across many social channels can be a little confusing. This post will help you understand how they are used today.

Background on Hashtags

For those who aren’t totally familiar with what a hashtag is, they are essentially just short links containing a word or unspaced phrase prefixed with the symbol #. On social networks such as Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+, and many more, they provide a means of grouping content tagged with a particular hashtag, also making it searchable. So for example, if you were watching the Super Bowl and wanted to tweet about it, you could include “#SuperBowl” in your tweet to be involved in that particular online conversation. It’s worth noting that a hashtag is only connected to a specific medium and can therefore not be connected to other messages or pictures from different platforms (i.e. if you look at a hashtag on Twitter, the search results will be different than the same hashtag on Instagram or Pinterest). And with Facebook just adding their own hashtag functionality earlier this year, there are even more discrepancies (more on that later). Like it or not, the rise of the hashtag is a reality and here to stay – they have even appeared in the front-page headline of The New York Times! (Photo source)

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CSS Acadia Photo Contest – #CSSAcadia100

Over the course of this year, Media Mechanics has been working with Nova Scotia Museums, especially the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, on social media marketing. As part of that effort, we undertook the conception and creation of a social campaign that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the CSS Acadia (former hydrographic surveying and oceanographic research ship belonging to the MMA since 1982). A photo contest was established, where visitors of the museum’s waterfront could take a picture of the vessel, and use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to enter it for the chance to win for best shot. The method of entry was to simply include the hashtag “#CSSAcadia100” in the photo’s caption. For the user, it provided an easy-to-understand way to be involved regardless of what social network they were using, and logistically, this was an effective way to be able to manage the numerous entries from various social channels. One complication that we hadn’t anticipated going into this contest though, was dealing with Facebook’s hashtag system specifically.

CSS Acadia poster-resized-600

Issues with Facebook Hashtags

Unlike Twitter or Instagram, where hashtags archive and categorize content from when those networks implemented them (meaning one can click on a hashtag and scroll through all the posts tagged with it from essentially the beginning of that social network), Facebook’s hashtagged posts only show up in search results from a very recent standpoint. The results were not more than couple weeks old, if that, and didn’t show up at all if the hashtag had been searched recently. This meant that for Facebook, we couldn’t simply search the hashtag at the end of the contest to view all the entries (luckily we had been searching and saving the images throughout the span of the contest – if we hadn’t, we would have been SOL). This discrepancy can be seen today by searching that very hashtag on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/hashtag/cssacadia100), where “there are no more recent posts to show right now”, versus Twitter (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23cssacadia100&src=typd&f=realtime), where one can view this hashtag in “Top tweets”, “All tweets”, and tweets from people you follow. In addition, Twitter’s Advanced Search functionality can let you search hashtags while associating the results with other dependencies such as particular places and people.

So why is Facebook different than all of the other social networks that use hashtags? The answer isn’t entirely clear, but for now, people aren’t happy. Facebook introduced hashtags in June of this year, and since then, there seem to be more naysayers than positive reviews of this addition. Facebook says their take on hashtag usage has “been focused on fine tuning the ranking algorithms before they surface them more prominently to people” (Source). Granted, at its core, Facebook is a more closed-off and private social network than Twitter and the rest, so with them customizing how hashtags work best on their own system makes sense somewhat in that regard. But by attempting to “reinvent the wheel” here, they seemed to have caused more confusion and uproar than any positives that came out of implementing this (see this Facebook page with over 15,000 likes, called “This is not Twitter. Hashtags don’t work here”). There have been talks about Facebook improving the way these work within their system, especially with search functionality, but for now, people are still ranting and raving about why they hate Facebook hashtags and why they were doomed to #fail from the get-go. There is even research showing that hashtags on Facebook do nothing to help additional exposure, and moreover, actually have the opposite effect.

Regardless of personal or business use, one thing that everyone can agree on is that hashtags should not be overused. This is personified in the following video from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

This blog post will be updated and added to accordingly. What is your opinion on how people, brands and organizations use hashtags? Have you seen any that you think are really good or notably bad uses?