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Twitter basics: Hashtags

Hashtags, love them or hate them, are important because they allow users to categorize tweets. When a user publishes a tweet with a hashtag, the tag appears as a link and allows readers to see the larger conversation around a topic or keyword.

#butfirst, the origin of the [Twitter] Hashtag

Hashtags sprung up organically during the early days of Twitter. Users wanted to organize tweets, particularly for live events. In 2007, Chris Messina sent out this question to his followers and quickly, users began using hashtags, though Twitter didn’t officially support them until 2009. (Back then, you had to manually search for a hashtag as no automatic link occurred.) 

As I alluded to above, hashtags are both loved and hated. Here are some examples that illustrate both: 

#thegood

  • Breaking news. Hashtags organically rise out of many big breaking news events. Users watch these to get caught up on what’s happened. Some examples from this past year: #BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie, #BringBackOurGirls, #BaltimoreUprising / #BaltimoreRiots.
  • Live events. Users will often use a common hashtag for an event, like a concert/festival, an election, or even holiday. 
  • Official hashtags. Now that hashtags are so popular, brands, TV shows and event promoters often publicize a hashtag so that users can interact easily. (They also do this for marketing and self-promotion, of course.) 
  • Callouts. You can ask your followers to contribute to a story by responding using a hashtag, like we did with #RaceOnTech

#thebad

  • #hashtag #all #the #things. You’ll see this EVERYWHERE. As hashtags reached peak popularity, they spilled into pop culture, our language and pretty much everywhere. So, plenty of Twitter newbies are confused and hashtag #every #word #like #this. Also, snarky Twitter users do this for emphasis and to make fun of others. #guilty
  • The vague. Disclosure: This one is my personal pet peeve. I often see people (including many journalists) using vague hashtags such as #weather and #traffic. What’s wrong with that? Hashtags exist globally, not just locally. So, if a user clicks your #weather hashtag, they’re going to see a lot of irrelevant content. Additionally, if a user wanted to know what the weather or traffic was for your area, they’re not going to search for #weather or #traffic. They’d search more specific terms like “405” and “LA” to find out about problems on I-405 in Los Angeles. 
  • Spam. Hashtags are not immune to spam bots and the like. If you come across one, do us all a favor and report it

Should I use a hashtag? When?

As a user, I’m more interested in searching for keywords than for hashtags. Shadi Rahimi, of AJ+, touched on this in a post at Poynter’s Mediawire

You might have thought that by tweeting #CallMeCaitlyn last week you were guaranteed engagement. Perhaps, as the hashtag was trending up. But a quick glance at Topsy near the end of the day showed “Caitlyn Jenner” as a keyword set on Twitter was trending higher than the hashtag (700,000+ tweets vs. 200,000+). [AJ+] sent out two tweets for that story: One with a hashtag at the very start of the trend, and one without at the end of the day.

What was the advantage of using the hashtag if “Caitlyn Jenner” trended higher? Shadi went on to write: 

By using the one hashtag, we consciously entered an existing, catalogued online conversation with a long shelf life, where the agenda had already been set by users — knowing an actively engaged audience would be likely to retweet.

But for most stories this is now the exception for us rather than the rule.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure your tweets include the keywords people might search for if they’re trying to find out about a particular topic. If there’s a relevant, in-use hashtag, include it if space allows, or send out another tweet that includes the hashtag. Keep in mind the good and bad use cases mentioned above! 

CAUTION! Hashtag ethics

As a journalist, you must exercise caution when using hashtags. While it’s usually best to use what’s already in use by the public, sometimes the hashtag might convey a bias. Shadi also wrote about this in the same Poynter piece, detailing how AJ+ used hashtags regarding the unrest in Baltimore. Be sure to give it a read. 

If you’re unsure of whether or not a hashtag is ethically sound and okay to use, be sure to check in with your editors. At NPR, you can always email the social media team, as well as our Standards & Practices editor Mark Memmott. 

How do I find relevant hashtags? 

There are a lot of ways to find hashtags. Here are some to get you started:

  • Listen/read. What are other users already using? This is also important because sometimes, popular use of hashtags change over time.  
  • If you’re covering an event, check the official websites to see if there’s an official hashtag. 
  • Check what’s trending on Twitter. On Twitter.com, trends are listed in multiple places, including on the homepage. You can customize them to see local trends, too. In Twitter apps, you can find trending topics by clicking the search icon. 
  • Check Topsy to compare keyword and hashtags use.

Should I create a hashtag if there isn’t one?

Keeping in mind the above, the answer will be rarely. But, there are always exceptions to the rule. As a regular Twitter user, you might want to categorize some your tweets so that you can go back later and reference them. You could do this to collect all the photos of your dog.

I particularly love how Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, uses hashtags. Sree gives a lot of talks about social media and tells the audience to tweet what they learn using #sreetips. Additionally, Sree tweets a lot of the cool new tools he finds using #coolnewtools. (This is a great hashtag to checkout!) 

NPR does something similar with #NPRreads, where correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept us reading. Each Friday, we highlight some of the best on the Two-Way

How many hashtags should I use?

Zero, one or two will usually get the job done. Any more than that and you’re pushing the patience of your audience. 

Hashtags elsewhere

Hashtags are not exclusive to Twitter anymore, however they are more popular on some social networks than others:

  • Facebook has them, but they’ve failed to really catch on there.
  • Tumblr uses them as tags for blogs and can help others discover your content. We use them on the Social Media Desk tumblr to categorize our posts. Here’s our Twitter tag, for example. 
  • On Instagram, they’re extremely popular. Users can use up to 30 tags on a single photo/video. Here’s a helpful guide to Instagram hashtags

Other relevant links


Lori Todd is a social media editor at NPR. This post originally appeared on NPR’s Social Media Desk Tumblr