Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Buying into hashtags

If I'm honest, I didn't get the point of hashtags to begin with. These aren't some strange aid for substance abuse, but those little features of Twitter posts (and hence Facebook status lines) that start with a "#" symbol - known as hash to its friends.

The idea of hashtags is to make it easy to pull together a stream of tweets on a linked topic. So, for instance, when there was the recent business over Scientology and the attack on a councillor for making a humorous tweet about them, the associated hashtag was #StupidScientology. Anyone wanting to follow comments on this matter could search for this particular hashtag.

Initially I really couldn't see the point. Twitter doesn't use # as a special symbol - it would work just as well if everyone just put StupidScientology in their post. But in practice it was useful to avoid confusion in a short message by having a word or phrase intended as a search term that didn't necessarily fit with the rest of the text. However, more recently I have come to see that the hashtag is more than this - it can be used as a shorthand explanation of what is happening.

I've done a couple of tweets lately using the hashtag #teenlogic - the idea being that these tweets were demonstrating occasions when teenagers had come up with an argument that didn't work in real world logic, but worked to the teen mind. One of my posts was this:

Whose shoes are these? Emily's. So how did she get home? She wore mine. Doh! #teenlogic

What I realized is that the hashtag does more than act as a search tool here - it explains what's going on. Without it, I seem to be suggesting that Emily has taken my shoes. But the #teenlogic tag tells us this is a conversation with a teenager, putting the whole tweet into context. This is really remarkably powerful, allowing a lot to be condensed into a few letters. Go hashtag!


  1. I did see this on twitter and, to be honest, I didn't understand what was going on because I still hadn't -- up til now -- understood the whole hashtag thing. But now my world is that much clearer....Thanks :-)

  2. I don't think my brain works in the way you are suggesting it should. Even with this label and explanation I still think it suggests that Emily took your shoes. Perhaps I don't speak to enough teenagers...

  3. John - no means of communication is perfect, and as Sue suggests, in this case involves learning a convention.

    The convention is that the hashtag qualifies what comes before it. In this case, it says "This is an example of teen logic". Now I admit this only is useful if you know me enough to know that I'm not a teenager, but I think this is true of most of my readers.

    Does that help? It's not that your brain doesn't work the right way, just that you aren't familiar with and/or comfortable with the convention.

  4. No - it doesn't help.

    I understand the convention, it's just that I don't understand the tweet, even in the light of the hashtag. Don't worry. I expect you got the shoes back!

  5. #I_wonder_what_can_be_said_in_any_tweet_that_references_a_hash_tag_that_is_so_long_that_it_leaves_only_some_very_small_n_of_spare_space?