You see them in tweets, you see them in print ads, you see them in television commercials. Last month, desperately-trying-to-stay-relevant Disney star Demi Lovato released a music video chock full of them.
I’m talking about the humble hashtag that started life as a simple tweet asking “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” according to “The Short and Illustrious History of Twitter #Hashtags,” in GigaOm.
A user-led invention from the pre-search days of Twitter, what hashtags do is create a way to find information based on keywords or topics. They’re especially useful for events, even if sometimes confusing (should I be using #sxsw or #sxswi or the session-specific tag?).
And they’re not just for Twitter. That same hashtag works the same way on Tumblr, Instagram or Google+. But, that sort of cross-platform functionality seems to have recently taken one step forward and one step back.
Most of the attention paid to Pinterest’s recent redesign has been on the visual elements, but along with those they removed the functionality of hashtags. While touting “More Ways to Discover What You Love,” Pinterest actually took away the most egalitarian of ways to do that. The Verge feels that with this sort of backend change — and a much-anticipated API — it could set the stage for big changes in the months to come. The changes noted here certainly seem to indicate Pinterest is trying to take more control:
On the other side of the issue, the Wall Street Journal noted that Facebook was working on incorporating the hashtag into their platform, although, “the feature isn’t likely to be introduced imminently.” Presumably, doing so would allow Facebook users to filter updates around a topic of theme – if Facebook really does adopt the hashtag. They’re not officially commenting on it.
A Los Angeles Times headline proclaimed the very “idea of Facebook adding hashtags incites uproar,” based on a few users they interviewed that didn’t want Facebook to be more Twitter-like. Ironically enough, these users evidently took to Twitter to express their unhappiness.
Hashtags on Facebook have the potential to be useful to community managers who could gain another outlet for organic visibility for their page updates. And, ClickZ reports that “Marketers [are] Eager for Facebook Hashtags,” because, as one commented: “Visibility is the name of the game on social media and hashtags are going to increase that.”
But, a New York Times social media editor says in a Neiman Lab post that hashtags don’t attract an audience and are aesthetically damaging:
“I’ve heard before: What’s the harm? Why not at least try to include #SuperBowl if every little bit helps? Somewhat of a fair point. Using a hashtag does no harm in the same way wood paneling does no harm to your station wagon, or a misspelled tattoo does no harm to your bicep.”
I guess I fall in with the “what can it hurt” crowd. I love the grassroots origin of the hashtag as something users themselves wanted and didn’t wait for platforms to create for us. I think that more cross-platform usage of it broadens its acceptance and makes it that much more of a beneficial tool for users.
What about you? Are hashtags useful for organizing and discovery of content, or are they just visual trash taking up valuable characters?
Hashtag hand sign image via Creative Commons by Kenneth McFarland