People, we’re in the middle of a hashtag epidemic and we have to put a stop to it. The use of hashtags has gone way beyond any reasonable scale, and what was once a handy tool is in danger of being horribly diluted. In this post, I’ll look at the history of the hashtag, the issues the humble hashtag is currently facing and how they should be used.


It began on Twitter…

Let me take you back to South by South West 2007. Twitter had been launched a year earlier and users of the service were generating 20,000 tweets per day (currently stands at around 400 million per day), the clever Twitter team installed plasma screens in various concourses etc at SXSW and streamed tweets from the event. People started to take more and more notice and daily tweets increased to around 60,000. Twitter gained much coverage and from there continued to grow into the social media giant we know and love today.

The increase of tweets brought with it a number of problems, one of which was the question of categorising information and content on Twitter – with more and more tweets flying around, how do you ensure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for?

Enter the hashtag

The hash symbol (#) had previously been used in IT and coding, for example in the ‘C’ language, so hashtagging as we know it now wasn’t the symbols first use in a digital sense. On August 26th, 2007, Chris Messina proposed the use of ‘hashtag’ in order to allow people to categorise information on Twitter, but also as a way of creating some form of ‘groups’. His idea was further explored by Stowe Boyd. The Twitter hashtag was born!

Hashtagging, across the universe…

Bringing things up to date, we now see hashtags used on Twitter (and further social media, but I’m focussing on Twitter just now) for a number of reasons, briefly, these are:

  • Categorising info and content – for example, #socialmedia
  • That also extends to marketing, or attempting to get more people to see your tweets via adding popular hashtags to them
  • Creating a feed from an event, that is updated in real-time, for example a conference like #TDC14
  • The point above is also heavily used now for popular TV shows – the shows want people to discuss it on Twitter, so they allocate a tag like #BGT for Britain’s Got Talent
  • As a competition entry mechanism or to help the competition managers gather all entries i.e. – To win a pint of cheese, re-tweet this tweet! #wincheesepint
  • There’s also the use of hashtags that related to none of the above, such as ‘Oh my god I’m so hungover!’ #mouthlikegandisflipflop

All used to be well in the land of the hashtag

But then they started appearing everywhere. In TV adverts, advertising posters, movie trailers, junk mail, TV shows, political campaigns, tattoos, your Granny’s house and just about anywhere you can display text. The world saw the hashtag as a way to create content and buzz around their brand, message, campaign, charity efforts and so on. Something that was intended to be a simple operator has been tainted. Forever. One of the key reasons for this is a misunderstanding of the correct use of hashtags, but also every Tom, Dick and Harry jumping on them in desperation to be seen to be using them – ‘oh yeah use a hashtag, it’ll make us look cutting edge’. Kind of like QR codes…

Here’s an example of hashtagging gone wrong

My hometown of Edinburgh has been implementing a tram system for the past 32 years, it has cost four gazillion pounds, shut down numerous businesses and given taxi drivers even more to rant about. In all seriousness, it has been a major debacle and embarrassment, but the trams will be live to the people of this fair city (and our numerous guests) on May 31st. Woop. The tram operators currently have numerous lamp-post ads across the city with two key messages – one supplying us with the launch date and one telling us all to be careful around the trams. Silent killers. Both use a hashtag – #readytoroll and #carefulnow.  Thanks to @dshirlaw for this pic!


Why is this a rubbish use of hashtags? 

There’s actually no need for this to have a hashtag. The aim here would be to get people tweeting messages related to being safe around the trams and tagging it with #carefulnow. Is this happening? Search twitter (or click here) and you’ll see a few tweets from the tram operator/their staff and some people referring to the fact that ‘careful now’ was a phrase used in an episode popular comedy show ‘Father Ted‘. Outside of that, we can see that #carefulnow is used for all manner of other purposes outside of Edinburgh tram safety. Their use of this hashtag is failing to amplify their message and due to that, serves no purpose.

If they really had to use a hashtag here, it should’ve been something completely unique to their campaign. It really isn’t hard to do the tiny little bit of research that is required to discover if your tag is unique, run a twitter search for it and you’ll get your answer quickly!

Aside from the uniqueness issue, this is a prime example of ‘I want one of those’ syndrome. The #readytoroll tag isn’t fairing any better either.

This is just one example of the overuse and misguided use of hashtags.

What are people using Twitter hashtags for?

I took to Twitter earlier today and asked:

The answers that came back all had similar points – people use them to search for info on set topics or to follow live events, news etc:

While this is far from conclusive research, it does show me that people are using hashtags for their original purpose and that perhaps using them as part of so many promotions, campaigns etc isn’t having the effect that many would hope. Of course, there are numerous hashtag success stories, but there are far more #fails.

Key tips for using hashtags

    • Make sure any tag you create for a campaign, promotion etc is unique
  • If you’re looking to take your tweets to a wider audience, tagging them with commonly used tags is fine, but don’t overdo it, try to keep to one, with a maximum of two per tweet
  • Try to tag at the end of your tweet as opposed to mid sentence, it just looks nasty that way!
  • Don’t create a hashtag if you sense that there may be any chance of it being open to abuse – see #McDStories for an example!
  • Never, ever use one for the sake of it, it’s not big and it’s not clever!
  • Don’t even think about using a hashtag that relates to a controversial or trending event etc in order to piggy back it, you’ll look desperate and more than a little sad

Save the hashtag

It’s time everyone started getting more sensible about the use of hashtags and stopped viewing them as a ‘must have’. If things continue the way they are, we’ll end up in a right old mess!

How do you feel about hashtags? How do you use them on Twitter? Do you have a great hashtag fail to share? Feel free to comment below. I also published this via LinkedIn and there are over 50 comments so far, a very interesting look at people’s perceptions of hashtags, read the comments here.

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Images via used under CC and @dshirlaw on Twitter.

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