Twitter 102
July 27, 2015 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Explain this crazy little thing called hashtags to me. How do you use them? How do you find good ones? What the heck are good ones? Why are they good? What do you do with them? Also, twitter culture and relationships.

With some help from the green (previously), I now have a twitter account and use it. It is even -- le gasp -- a meaningful part of my life. But I still feel like I don't get the culture there or how to interact with people and, oh, god, hashtags. I feel so freaking clueless about hashtags.

Hook me up with basic and advanced hashtag info. And, you know, twitter culture/relating, if you feel like it. But please cover hashtags.

Thanks Mefites of The Green!
posted by Michele in California to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hashtags are used for searching. For example, if you're at a conference called Twitter Users Conference and you want to tweet something about the conference in a way that other people at the conference will have an easy time finding it, you can tweet with #tuc2015. Then everyone at the conference can just search for '#tuc2015' to see what everyone is tweeting at the event. Often event organizers will even *suggest* a hashtag to use. It's sort of a simple, ad hoc way to file tweets under a topic.
posted by chrchr at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: I actually have a friend who's done research on this! If you scroll down here you'll find some examples.

Hashtags can either be (1) tags, which mark something as being part of a larger conversation, or (2) provide commentary on your tweet.

(2) can be subdivided into two parts: either it can be evaluative (show what you think about something) or it can be part of the substance of the tweet itself.

So, for (1) you have things like, say, the name of a TV show (#sytycd for So You Think You Can Dance) or a social movement (#blacklivesmatter) or something like #tbt (ThrowBackThursday, showing pictures of things from the past). This means your Tweet is a part of that larger conversation, or in that genre, or whatnot.

For (2) you can have stuff like "30 minutes until lunch. #soexcited" or "#Senior exit project. Microeconomics project. math final. #onlythingslefttodo. "
posted by damayanti at 2:26 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Quite simply, it's a bit of text added to the message that allows people to contribute messages to a common topic in a medium, such as twitter, which doesn't otherwise have a natural system for joining/threading/linking messages. The hash (# -- if you're an American, you probably called this a pound or number sign all your life, but Anglos and computer programmers have been calling it hash for a long time) is parsed/noticed by the software and the has tells the software "the text after this symbol should be treated as a tag, and therefore this message should appear in a search for the hashtag."

So that's how hashtags work. How do people create them? Some people spam them, trying to link their message to any keyword and variation on that keyword in order to link their message to others. Some people who want to try to start a conversation thread create a unique-ish memorable hashtag, and interested followers will use it as well to link their messages with the original. Sometimes this is a spur for creativity, #songsthatsoundlikedogshowling , and other times it's political or social #mefitelivesmatter .

Entities that want to advertise or summon affinity groups (by which I mean fans, such as for TV show or a political platform) use a hashtag so that the people can filter out all the firehose of twitter comments, and only see the messages from people who are talking about just what happened on #TheBachelor just now, or #whatisJoeBidensayingnow ?
posted by Sunburnt at 2:26 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: For (2) you can have stuff like "30 minutes until lunch. #soexcited" or "#Senior exit project. Microeconomics project. math final. #onlythingslefttodo. "

Right and I would argue that that's a bad way to use hashtags, cuz no one is out there searching for '#soexcited'. Internet people, please just write "So excited."

#blacklivesmatter, though, is a great example of a good use for hashtags. If you want to read all the tweets about Black Lives Matter, you can just search '#blacklivesmatter' and be deluged.
posted by chrchr at 2:30 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: All good advice above. Please don't go overboard with hastags, though. I've seen tweets like "Here's a pic of my pet snake! #ilovemysnake #snake #snakes #petsnakes #pets #slithery #scaly #snakesareawesome #snakepics" and it just seems really obnoxious.
posted by erst at 2:41 PM on July 27, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I would argue that that's a bad way to use hashtags

I think that's damayanti's point though, which is that realistically people are using them in two different ways. Here's a jokey video about hashtags if that helps grok why people might dislike their overuse. What also might be useful is knowing that a lot of people interact with Twitter via a client (i.e. not just the twitter website) and so can have an ongoing tweet stream they read that is just a hashtag. You can do the same thing with a search (or a username) and you'd expect different results. So I'm currently doing a little project about the next librarian of congress and I made up the (barely not used at all) hashtag #nextloc which now can collocate tweets that have that hashtag. People who might not even follow each other can follow the tag and see other people's tweets who are talking about that topic. But if I was tweeting something and wanted to add editorial commentary, I might do something like this. So that's searchable by the one hashtag but the other is mostly there just to sort of be a joke (though it is sort of funny to read that hashtag).
posted by jessamyn at 2:42 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

What also might be useful is knowing that a lot of people interact with Twitter via a client (i.e. not just the twitter website) and so can have an ongoing tweet stream they read that is just a hashtag.

TV networks are trying to use this to keep viewers watching live (with ads, of course) instead of time-shifting the program via DVR. You'll see hash tags created by the show's producers and slapped in the corner of the screen, encouraging you to volunteer some commentary about what's going on in the show and read what everyone else is saying.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:56 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: Twitter culture:

I have this problem on twitter where I think I'm friends with people who follow me, or more problematically, with people who I follow. Or maybe it's more like, I think we're all at a party together, in the same crowded room. So I expect more interaction than I get. And if I start a conversation, I expect all like-minded people nearby to interact with me, which they usually don't.

There's an intimacy to twitter that makes me feel like part of a club that I'm not actually part of. I read smart, funny people saying thoughtful or personal or provocative stuff, and so I respond, as if they're standing right next to me, but to them, the interaction is more like they're standing at a lectern and I'm in the audience. Maybe they'll interact but generally not (kind of like a Q&A with the lectern analogy). This disconnect between my perception of the social dynamic and the reality of the social dynamic actually kind of lead to some difficult emotions for me so I use twitter much less than when I first joined, even though I still like it a lot.
posted by latkes at 3:03 PM on July 27, 2015 [11 favorites]

Best answer: For example, if you're at a conference called Twitter Users Conference and you want to tweet something about the conference in a way that other people at the conference will have an easy time finding it, you can tweet with #tuc2015.

Some twitter clients (Tweetbot, Tweetdeck) let you mute hashtags. Which is awesome when people livetweet conferences about things I don't care about.
posted by aubilenon at 3:31 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Something that's worth keeping in mind is that you can use Twitter in meaningful ways without ever using hashtags. They are useful if you want to participate in a larger public conversation (e.g. #runchat, #blacklivesmatter, hashtags for conferences or other events), or to join in on a fun meme (e.g. #tbt, #addawordruinamovie), or if you're using Twitter as a professional networking tool or to promote a blog. But if you use Twitter like a micro-Facebook or a micro-LiveJournal — mainly just tweeting socially as a way of chatting with friends who are already following you — then you may not have any real use for hashtags, and that's totally okay.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:06 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: It's also useful to know that Instagram also uses hashtags, but the culture there is a little different, in ways that can spill over into some people's use of Twitter.

Instagram has no character limit on the text you post with your photo, so some people really go to town with the hashtags and add loooong lists of just-about-relevant hashtags to every photo. And - more so than on Twitter, I think - browsing hashtags is one of the big ways people experience Instagram. Over there, people really will just sit and look at everything that's hashtagged #sunset or #bananawaffles or #Ilovemylabradoodle or whatever. Those kind of trivial hashtags on Twitter always read to me like noise (when they're not a joke or meme or related to a topical subject/live event), but I assume that often the people putting them in are folk who use Instagram more and so have that kind of tone that involves being liberal with the hashtags.

Just a little context.
posted by penguin pie at 4:30 PM on July 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I really almost never use hashtags except in retweeting social-justice-related items. I still have a very rich Twitter life.

I see a lot of people using hashtags on Instagram as tags, like I have a friend who uses a certain hashtag for all the pictures of her dogs that I am sure no other user is using, and I assume that's supposed to work like keyword tagging and not just to be super annoying to me. For some people, that kind of overtagging seems to carry over to Twitter by habit.

The other useful bit of tags is that your Twitter client will highlight them so you can click on them and see everything with that tag. So, for example, the campaign #sayhername is about saying the names of black women who have been killed in police custody, and I can click on that tag when I see it go by and browse back through or watch as new tweets are added with that tag. This can be handy when there's a breaking news event (though it tends to take a couple of hours for people to come to a consensus about which tag to use). A planned event (like #newhorizons) or conference, on the other hand, will often put up signs and announce the official hashtag so that all participants are using the same one.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:34 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: I consider myself a Twitter power user, but the truth is popular hashtags get deluded a lot by people misusing them and spam. I track several hashtags in my TweetDeck for news topics I follow closely, and they are filled with a lot of crap. Like for instance, during the Superbowl I am sure #SuperBowl2015 was the official hashtag and you'd get a lot of tweets of people reacting to the game, but also spam where people put the hashtag in unrelated tweets to try to get people to read the tweets.

The most useful hashtags, in my opinion, will be ones that revolve around a live or breaking event you want to follow. Especially if it isn't so popular that everyone on the planet is following it, like the Superbowl. Example: if the International Basketweavers Conference is happening and reporters are at the scene, following #IBC2015 (or whatever the hashtag of the conference is) can get you all the live minute-by-minute updates. Since it's not the Superbowl, you'll get less spam and it should just be updates from people who are at the conference.

Sometimes a topic will trend as a hashtag that becomes kind of a funny meme. Like #BadFirstDate or something, where people tweet bad first date experiences that are funny. But it's a waste of time to go through these hashtags yourself, in my opinion -- most people are not witty or interesting. Just let BuzzFeed or someone compile a list of the best ones and read that instead.

Occasionally Twitter will introduce fun things like hashflags. Like during the Women's World Cup, hashtags for countries made a little maple leaf graphic (because the tournament was in Canada) that looked like the flag of that country. But they disappeared once the tournament ended.

Lastly, it can just add context to something, especially when you are running out of space to add a full sentence, or it's not necessary to use a full sentence to emphasize a point. Example: "The Supreme Court just announced that same sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. #history" or "Just went to Chipotle and tried their new vegan protein in a burrito bowl. #thumbsup"
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Re: Nebulawindphone's comment:

I have a number of blogs. I suck at self promotion. Tweeting links when I post new stuff does not get much traffic but twitter has been a much, much more positive, productive experience than anything else I have done. Among other things, I am trying to figure out how to leverage that. So one thing I wonder is how I could meaningfully use hashtags when I tweet links to new blog posts.

I am sure I have been doing a bunch of stuff really badly. But no one on twitter appears to want my head on a platter and it has led to development of my work in ways I do not know how to succinctly sum up here and also led to some traffic and even some money. Compared to my usual track record, this is #wildlysuccessful. So I am hoping that if I actually understand what the heck I am doing to some small degree, some day, my life might be less sucktastic. It has already made such a big difference while I was just utterly clueless.

I will stop there before I beanplate this and conclude that ignorance is bliss and seeking to understand will surely screw everything up. But, yeah, self promotion is one of my goals. So if people could talk a bit about how to figure out what hashtags might be relevant to get interested eyes on something, I would appreciate that. Just like I am lame at using tags on mefi and I don't understand how to effectively tag things here, I have the same issue on twitter.
posted by Michele in California at 5:06 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: I'm not an expert, but I think people who come off as being present on twitter for the purpose of self promotion are immediately unappetizing, because that promotion aspect is readily apparent. So my non-expert recommendation is to get involved in twitter with the focus on creating connections with like-minded people and communities. List your blogs in your bio so people can find them, but let them come to you instead of trying to reel them in...

I don't think hashtags will be super helpful to you, except in finding like minded people. So for example if your blog was about high-gluten cooking, then you could search for other people with that interest by trying to figure out what hash tags they might use (like, I don't know, #highglutencooking #iheartgluten), and then following people who have used those hash tags.
posted by latkes at 5:15 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: Hashtags can also be used to set up a live time chat. For example, I follow an education hashtag that meets up at a certain day and time every week for a live conversation. Including the hashtag keeps everyone following that tag in the conversation. I've had success using Hootsuite in my iPad. It lets you save a hashtag to its own column so it's easier to follow.
posted by tamitang at 5:56 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > So one thing I wonder is how I could meaningfully use hashtags when I tweet links to new blog posts.

I do this sometimes with my blog posts, but my community (people who make games) have a pretty standard set of hashtags everyone uses for content you want to throw out there and get a lot of eyeballs (for example, #gamedev). The signal to noise ratio isn't very good, so it doesn't have a big impact on my views, but sometimes gets me a couple more followers. Your community might have similar tag(s), but might not.

I learn about hashtags by just following other people in my field and seeing what they tweet, clicking on the hashtags they use, and using them to find more (more tags and more people to follow). If I find a tag has useful information/content associated with it, then I know it's a good tag to also contribute to. Basically, use the search feature to check out tags and use that as part of your general use of twitter to find cool stuff and cool people, and then eventually contribute to it. Don't just tweet out to hashtags you never read yourself.

Honestly, I rarely use hashtags in my tweets and it has not affected my ability to network/promote/etc. People who follow me because they like what I have to say will naturally share/retweet my articles much more often and with more enthusiasm (and then chat with me about them) than if I relied on hashtags. (I use twitter for both self-promotion and socializing, but my field is small and pretty tight-knit so that's normal).
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 7:22 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I almost never use a hashtag, and I don't search for them either. Twitter has text search - I'm not sure how searching for #blacklivesmatter is functionally different from searching for blacklivesmatter without the hash.
posted by ctmf at 7:51 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: > I'm not sure how searching for #blacklivesmatter is functionally different from searching for blacklivesmatter without the hash.

1, easy of use: Hashtagging is built into most (all?) twitter clients, so when a hashtag appears in a displayed tweet, searching for other such tagged tweets usually is as simple as clicking on the hashtag.

2, identifying trends: Twitter's engine, and the engine of a whole lot of other sites using Twitter's API to read tweets are looking for hashtags, not text strings. #blacklivesmatter will trend, but searching for the string might get you the tweets about "Rebecca Black Live! Smattering of bad music."

2A: Trends might include microtrends, i.e. trends that exist among a select group. Example: HuffPo wants to add an inline feed of all the #blacklivesmatter posts that are retweeting or name-checking any of their writers or also have some hashtag that's particular to their brand, or the marketing crew at CW wants to know whether @cw_spn ("Supernatural") fans are leaning towards #TeamDean or #TeamSam based on a promo poll they flicked up on the screen at minute 35.

3, shorthand: hashtags are the bumperstickers of the social mediasphere, small memetic bullets that can be carried from network to network (Twitter to Instagram to G+ to Facebook), and are useful for sloganeering. I don't need to know what you stand for if I see that you're one of those #purplelivesmatter assholes, because I'm a #indigolivesmatter asshole, etc.

The difference is that the software already knows it's a tag, and treats it like one with all the benefits that tags bring.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:35 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

aubilenon: Some twitter clients (Tweetbot, Tweetdeck) let you mute hashtags. Which is awesome when people livetweet conferences about things I don't care about.

Or TV shows. Especially Get Glue's badges.
posted by TravellingCari at 1:17 PM on July 28, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I'm slower than molasses in a blizzard in Canada when it comes to some things, so I don't have any big announcements of grand success to report at this time. But your feedback is appreciated and I am still working on this problem space.
posted by Michele in California at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2015

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