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Too many hashtags

April 4, 2013

Published here on March 4, 2013

Since its addition of the hashtag in 2007, Twitter has managed to resurrect the pound sign. A little rebranding and violà, there’s a new symbol — pun intended — of online communities. It’s near impossible to find a conference these days without that little sign (hash)tagging along. LinkedIn already uses them, and Facebook is rumored to start as well. Last year, someone even named their kid “hashtag” — well I guess in her case, it’s the capitalized “Hashtag.”

Originally started to help Twitter users bond together through common interests, the hashtag’s goal is noble. But users have tipped the great power/great responsibility seesaw off balance. The problem with this micro-tic-tac-to board is that it’s so overused. With people hashtagging everything from “salt” to “building,” any actual online communities are lost in the chatter.

Also, as the Nieman Journalism Lab recently pointed out, studies are starting to show that hashtagging isn’t even all that effective. There were, on average, 167 tweets sent out every second during the super bowl that included “#SuperBowl.” Even if users read the first 10 tweets on the “search results” page, it would take 17 people searching for “#SuperBowl” every second for any single tweet to get seen once.

That’s an extreme example, but still, how often have you actually sought out what other people were saying about “#MarchMadness” or “#prop8”?

We’re not calling for the death of the hashtag — we’re just asking that it be used appropriately.

When to use the hashtag:

  • For events: As we said before, most events come packaged with an official hashtag. Event coordinators tweet memorable quotes, shout-outs to speakers, and relevant information, all accompanied by this hashtag. As a participant (or as a representative for your company), this can be helpful when you want to quickly recap what you’ve learned or to find speakers so you can network.
  • For Twitter chats: Often described as a way to increase online engagement, Twitter chats allow for an online discussion of sorts. Like events, there is a specific hashtag associated with the chat, and anyone who wants to participate simply adds the hashtag to their tweet. The difference here is that followers are actively looking for this hashtag so they can keep up with the discussion.
  • For major events: Though your business probably won’t gain many followers (remember the 17 people a second?), including a hashtag about a major event shows engagement in emerging topics. But make sure you check the “Trending” column first; if you were the unfortunate soul who hastaged “KeepGoogleReader” as opposed to “SaveGoogleReader,” your tweet probably wasn’t seen at all.

When not to use the hashtag:

  • In place of Twitter handles: This one is just a newbie move. Your business should tweet @TechCrunch, and not #TechCrunch. Likewise, if we find a tweet beginning with #crossroadspr as opposed to @crossroadspr, we’re coming after you.
  • For the sake of hashtagging: There’s no law that says you need a hashtag in every tweet. In fact, some accounts (such as @NYTimes with its 8 million followers) refuse to use them at all. Hashtagging relevant terms such as “#tech” or “#CRM” is fine. Things like “#computer” or “#improve” are not.

Like a teen star, the pound sign has enjoyed so much time in the spotlight it’s losing touch with reality. And if Facebook really does start use of the hashtag, we’ll be inundated with it from all directions.

But with some discipline, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

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