The question of hashtags and what the heck they are has come up several times recently and I have been forced into the strange and impossible position of attempting to explain the concept to people who don’t use Twitter. This experience is almost as much fun as explaining Twitter to a non-Twitter user.
I happily (and quite logically, in my opinion) begin to explain the simple joys of Twitter, and as the words are coming out of my mouth I see the eyes of person in front of me slowly glazing over. Such was the case of hashtags when I began to explain their history, uses, misuses, plus sides… oh, hey. Your eyes look a little swirly. Have I lost you already?
I find that explaining Twitter and hashtags to the non-user is like describing how something sounds to a deaf person. The words I want to use only apply if you’ve been on Twitter (or Instagram) and have seen things working.
If you’re one of the confused non-hashtag users curious about what all this #fuss is about, here, let me explain. My hashtags, let me show you them.
In the simplest of definitions, hashtags are search terms.
On Tuesday night, I missed the end of the Dancing with the Stars finale and was wondering who won. Naturally, I went to Twitter and searched “DWTS”. If this tweet hadn’t been hashtagged with #DWTS, it wouldn’t have shown up in the search results. By hashtagging it, Kellie gave it a searchable category, so when someone like me wants to see the latest tweets about DWTS, her tweet will show up in the results.
— kellie pickler (@kelliepickler) May 22, 2013
Hashtags can also be a tool for tuning out tweets you don’t want to read. Not a sports fan? If Twitter-users are nice, they’ll hashtag their tweets with something like #superbowl or #ncaa and then various Twitter apps will allow you to mute specific hashtags. This is great for spoilers, too, like season finales of your favorite TV shows, or awards shows you might be recording to watch later.
Finally got to the “Seems a pity to miss such a good pudding”. Had to pause for 5 minutes of laughter. #Downton
— Alan Swinamer (@aswinamer) February 7, 2013
But don’t fret. Hashtags aren’t just boring tools and metadata, they can also be fun.
There are games:
The Purge. #MoviesOrBowelMovements
— David T. Cole (@Glark) May 23, 2013
Now think up your best “Movie or Bowel Movement” and hashtag it to join in the fun.
Oh alright. #gym
— josh groban (@joshgroban) May 22, 2013
The hashtag as comment:
— Dwayne (@dhmarshal) April 17, 2013
And the intentional misuse of hashtags hashtag:
— Amanda (@asg923) March 1, 2012
There are also contests that you enter with hashtags. I entered (and won #humblebrag) a contest on Instagram by using the company’s name as the hashtag of a photo. Roku is having one now leading up to the Arrested Development release this weekend:
— Roku(@RokuPlayer) May 22, 2013
A lot of Instagrammers use hashtags to enter contests. A couple of the folks I follow there use DOZENS of hashtags on each photo. It looks a little crazy, but it can get your photo noticed.
One great way to see how hashtags work is to click on one and see what sort of search results it brings up. You could end up down a rabbit hole of hate if you click on #whitegirlproblems or #beliebers but then again, maybe you search #puppies on Instagram and lose yourself in the cuteness for a while.
So there you go. Hopefully, if you were hashtag-unaware, this explanation helped you a bit. Hopefully you’re not asleep on your keyboard.
Let me just leave you with this little hashtag tip before I let you loose in the Twitter and Instagram universes to hashtag with wild abandon: PUT SPACES BETWEEN YOUR HASHTAGS. We’ve all seen it and it’s terrible. Here is an actual example of missing-space hashtag abuse from an anonymous friend’s Instagram feed:
NO. This makes your multiple tags into one long, nonsensical hashtag. Spaces, they are important.