The Birth and Evolution of the Hashtag

In August 2007, the pound sign became a “hashtag”.

Chris Messina proposed the idea of the hashtag in a tweet as a way to identify groups on Twitter. Hashtags are now used in all kinds of social media posts and are meant to tie public conversations together. You can search a hashtag to find any conversation or post that references a particular topic or phrase.

Why should you use hashtags?

Hashtags can be used to identify the content of a post with just a few topical words or phrases. Using hashtags helps writers because they are able to categorize their content and create a stream of ideas around the same topic. Hashtags also help the readers by allowing them to faster discover the information for which they are searching.

In terms of how to categorize a hashtag, the possibilities are endless:

  • Current events: #Snowmaggedon, #Brexit, #Election2016
  • Popular culture:  #Grammys, #GoT
  • Holidays or special occasions: #GalentinesDay, #Xmas2017
  • National days: #NationalDonutDay, #BestFriendDay
  • Movements/activism: #WomensMarch, #BlackLivesMatter
  • Wedding hashtags: #JaneAndMitchGetHitched
  • Other social media tags: #selfie, #MotivationMonday, #ThrowbackThursday aka #tbt

Hashtags are a great way to get followers by more precisely targeting an audience. If someone is searching for a specific subject like the ones listed above, using a hashtag will narrow the search quickly to bring up only content with that particular tag.

You can even create your own acronym or hashtag as a way to start a new trend. For example, a lot of couples create hashtags to organize content from their weddings so that they can search for the hashtag later and find photos or posts from their big day. (If you can’t think of a good wedding hashtag, try this online generator.)pic-2

How hashtags work on different social media platforms

Twitter

It’s actually hard to imagine Twitter pre-hashtags because now almost every tweet includes one. On Twitter it’s easy to search a topic by hashtag and find all of the related posts. Twitter will sort the posts by Top (most read), Latest, People, Photos and Videos. You can also view the left-hand side of the Twitter feed to see trending hashtags.

Is one hashtag enough to make a difference in engagement? In short, yes. One relevant or witty hashtag is enough, maybe even 2, but stick to two or less. Research has shown that using one or two hashtags on Twitter helps increase engagement in your content by over 20%, but using 3 or more hashtags actually starts to decrease that engagement and turns people off to your content.

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There is also a thing called Twitter Chats, which I just recently learned about. Basically, you can go to this site to find a schedule of planned networking chats on Twitter about different topics using a specific hashtag.

Instagram

Instagram works a bit differently than twitter when it comes to hashtags. The idea behind the hashtag is the same, but on Instagram the hashtags come with a photo (since that’s the point of the Instagram platform). Instagram is in direct contrast with Twitter when it comes to the correlation between number of hashtags and the success of the post. On Instagram, the most successful posts have lots of hashtags (see chart below), so hashtag it up when you post there.

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Facebook

Hashtags are much less useful on Facebook than on Twitter or Instagram, mostly because the majority of people keep their Facebook accounts private. If an account is private, that user’s posts are unsearchable, which means so are the hashtags in those posts. If an account or an individual post are made public, then the hashtag works very similar to how it does on Twitter/Instagram. Out of the three platforms discussed here (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), Facebook has the least success with hashtags. Using any amount of hashtags in a Facebook post just creates noise and will significantly drop the reach of the post.

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#GetFollowers: What are best practices for a successful use of a hashtag?

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  1. Less is more, unless you’re posting on Instagram. Instead of churning out 20 lame hashtags, take that time to come up with just a couple of really catchy ones.
  2. Avoid generic hashtags like #happy, #food, #fun, etc. The more specific the tag, the more likely your post will come up in a search.
  3. Don’t be wordy in your tags. If being specific means you have a 10-word hashtag, don’t do it. Something like #thisiswhatiateforbreakfastontuesday is not a good tag for obvious reasons. It gets hard to read these, it’s confusing, and frankly people will just get annoyed. Hashtags don’t need to explain everything because you probably already did that in your actual content.
  4. Watch your spelling. If you misspell within your hashtag there’s a good chance no one will find it.
  5. Capitalize words in your hashtag. If you #CapitalizeYourWords it will be much easier to read the phrase within your hashtag, thus generating more engagement.

If you’re really struggling to find hashtags you can search your topic on Twitter to find related hashtags, or use websites like hashtagify.

#HashItOut

 

 

 

 

9 comments

  1. Wow great post! I really enjoyed reading your discussion comparing the different uses of hashtags in relevance to the various social media platforms. I never realized the contrasting implications of how hashtags work in terms of Twitter versus Instagram for example. Pointing out that “less is more” for Twitter, but opposite for Instagram, is definitely very true. I’m a big advocate of hashtags, even though I probably don’t use them correctly in terms of trying to maximize the amount of viewers seeing my posts.

  2. Interesting topic! I expected a difference of use of hashtags between Facebook and Twitter/Instagram, but I did not expect the difference between Instagram and Twitter. I wonder if this shows how hashtags will be used on future platforms. Will future platforms see an increase in hashtags in posts. Personally, I find it annoying because the hashtags become vague and may not be accurately depicting the content.

  3. Informative post! It’s interesting too, to see that a lot of people use hashtags (particularly on Instagram) without the intent of creating centralized content for others to post about, but more so to simplify the gist of their post. I was just perusing Instagram and saw someone put a picture of their favorite food and wrote “#happygirl” – clearly just showing an emotion and not looking for others to post pictures of happy girls. It would be interesting to see how often people use hashtags for their actual purposes and how often it’s just for fun!

  4. Cool post! In my first class at Boston College in 2013, I’m guilty of asking my professor what the hashtags mean on Excel, resulting in him pausing, looking at me funny, and asking, “Do you mean the pound signs?” I will never forget this moment, and it just goes to show how prevalent hashtags have become. I also did not know the differences between best hashtag practices on Twitter vs. Instagram, and I find it really interesting how the number of hashtags to include is opposite. Hashtag best practices personally remind me of choosing search engine keywords, especially the need to include distinctive, relevant words that are not too broad. I wonder if over time it will be hard to create unique hashtags if more and more people use them on all platforms. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great post! Similar to Joe and Danielle, I never really thought about the difference between the use of hashtags on different platforms, but it is definitely true. I wonder if the difference in the use of hashtags may have to do with the demographics of people on each platform–are people on Instagram looking for something different than people on twitter? Are they fundamentally different in terms of demographics?

  6. Nice job. I really liked how you broke down how hashtags transform each social network in their own unique way. It will be interesting to see in the coming years to see if hashtags start playing a bigger role in other media such as TV commercials. It will also be interesting to see how companies use social media hashtags to offer discounts, reach a bigger audience, etc.

  7. I only just started using hashtags in daily media interaction from being on the #IS6621 feed. I remember a couple years back when people thought hashtags were only for Twitter and expressed their annoyance with users who kept bringing them to Instagram and Facebook. Now I see how accurate your point is in that Instagram feeds are so dependent on hashtags, because some of my blogger friends used them heavily to gain traffic in their incipience as public accounts. Also I appreciate that you provided links to statistical data on phenomena that I’ve noticed but never really researched, such as the success of hashtags and the excessiveness that can backfire. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Really great post! Like I’m sure a lot of us have, I’ve been using most of the big social media platforms for at least 3 or 4 years. In that time, I noticed the introduction of the hashtag onto Facebook although you rarely see people use it. Your article and analysis fully explain why this is the case. I really agree with your analysis/research of too many hashtags actually creating less engagement than those with two hashtags. When I see too many hashtags, unless I can tell that the person is purposely overusing them, I just skip over the Tweet. On a different note, I think hashtags have even evolved from their original purpose as social media constantly changes and becomes more widely used. Hashtags are no longer just ways for regular people to connect on a certain topic but for companies/marketing teams to do so as well. Thanks for sharing your research!

  9. Nice post. Two insights I’d add: 1) If I am not mistaken, the hashtag was actually a convention that was ported over to Twitter from IRC channels. It doesn’t discredit anything you write about here, but its history is likely longer than its use on Twitter (although it revolutionized Twitter). 2) I do think some people use hashtags as a ironic side comment, not as a mechanism to get their idea out, which would have different use/don’t use rules. Nevertheless, nice post.

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