I came across a strangely interesting article about the history of the Twitter hashtag, how to get the most out of them, and Twitter meta-data ideas that haven’t taken off, still could take off. Should take off because they’d be useful. The original article is by Beth Belle Cooper on The Bluffer Blog, who I remember because she wrote another interesting article about completely changing her name… I can’t imaging disliking my name that much.
Anyway, her article is quite long so I’ve cut out the most interesting bit and pasted it below. If you want to also read the full history, it’s here.
Getting the most out of Twitter hashtags
Although hashtags have evolved with the development of Twitter itself, we can gain some useful insights by looking at Chris’s original plans for the hashtag, and how it could be useful.
For shortened URLs or ambiguous tweets, adding a hashtag can immediately provide context for other users, without affecting the content of the tweet itself (supposing we look at hashtags how Chris proposed them—as meta-data).
Joining a conversation
If your post is about a topic, but doesn’t reference it specifically, users who monitor that particular topic’s keyword or common hashtags may miss your tweet. Adding a hashtag to the end of your post can slot your tweet into those streams so it doesn’t get missed. I often do this when tweeting about startups, since the word “startups” doesn’t often fit naturally into the body of my tweet.
Collecting tweets about a trending topic
As in the case of the San Diego Fires, using one hashtag across all users who contribute tweets about a particular topic can help other Twitter users to keep up. Regardless of who you’re following, if you follow a hashtag, particular for a current event like a sports match or an election, you can see all of the tweets about that topic in one place.
In fact, it was a similar situation to the San Diego Fires that led Chris to the idea of hashtags to begin with. When he noticed people tweeting about earthquakes in the Bay Area, he started looking for a better way to coordinate these communications via Twitter.
Avoiding going overboard
It turns out Chris isn’t a fan of over-hashtagging either.
Already it’s been made clear to me that the use of hashtags can be annoying, adding more noise than value.
While he originally suggested that hashtags could be added within a tweet for emphasis, he later decided that approach was “gratuitous” and that “removing the hashes doens’t actually reduce the meaning” but leaving them out can make a tweet look much better. Here’s the example he offered:
“Eating #popcorn at #Batman in #IMAX.”
“Eating popcorn at Batman in IMAX.”
The lesson here being think carefully about using hashtags—why are you using that hashtag? Will other users gain value from it? Or is it just cluttering up your tweet and making it harder to read?
Overall, I think the best advice we can take away for using hashtags comes directly from Chrishimself:
Used sparingly, respectfully and in appropriate measure, I think that the value generated from the use of hashtags is substantial enough to warrant their continued use.
What could be next after the Hashtag: Slashtags and more
Chris hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs ever since hashtags were officially adopted at Twitter. In fact, he’s gone ahead and invented some new tweet conventions, though they haven’t had quite the successful adoption that hashtags did.
Later coined “slashtags,” these are more ways to add useful meta-data to tweets in a consistent way, according to Chris.
By using a slash: “/” at the end of his tweets, Chris points out where meta-data begins and the tweet’s content ends. Considering Twitter’s original billing as a micro-blogging platform, it actually makes sense to include meta-data if you can squeeze it into 140 characters.
Chris has three new “pointers,” or meta-data terms he uses after the slash:
- via to indicate where an idea came from (as opposed to a RT, when the entire tweet is forwarded on, rather than the idea in your own words)
- cc to ensure a particular person sees a tweet, without directing it only to them with an @reply
- by to give credit for a quote, for instance.
Chris set out rules for how these can be used by any Twitter users in the hopes that they might see wider adoption and create a more consistent, readable Twitter stream that encapsulates necessary meta-data as well as tweet content.
3 more ideas to perfect the hashtag further
As I was researching this post, I read several blog posts by Chris and other Twitter users from around the time hashtags were first seeing more adoption across Twitter. I found it really interesting to look at everyone’s feature wishlists and predictions for how hashtags might evolve in the future and wanted to share some to finish off this post.
Chris himself briefly suggested the idea of a “whisper cirlce” or “inner circle” that would function similar to a private Facebook group or Google+ circle, letting you send tweets to a small number of users, while still having the option to post publicly to your standard timeline. He even suggested being able to post tweets that only you could see, if you wanted to.
Formatting multi-word hashtags
In this post by Stephanie Booth, she describes some possible ways to format multi-word hashtags so they are easier to read.
One suggestion was to use a plus symbol in-between words, like so: #san+francisco. Since Twitter’s “track” feature at the time (sort of like a saved search that got sent to your phone) didn’t index plus symbols properly, if you tracked the phrase “san francicso,” you wouldn’t see these particular tweets.
Another one I really liked was to use opening and closing hashes, like parentheses: #san francisco#. Obviously, that one never took off, either.
Hashtags from your followers
I’m sad this one hasn’t been implemented, because it sounds pretty useful. It’s another suggestion from Stephanie’s blog post, that would help with hashtag overload, especially at big events or during big news breaks:
Once “everybody” starts using hashtags, it will be very useful to be able to narrow down a collection of tagged tweets to “my followees only”; imagine I’m at LeWeb3, and everybody is twittering about it: I’m not interested in getting the thousands of tweets, just those from the people I’m following