On #hashtags

28 March 2013

Every time I read a geek opine about social trends it reminds me of Maciej Ceglowski’s post from a few years ago entitled The Social Graph is Neither. His main assertion was that we are a bunch of admittedly non-social engineers designing and building software – social networks – for a system that is so wildly complex that it cannot be graphed. What’s so entertaining to me, is not only do we attempt to design, build, and graph it, we also love to criticize it.

A couple of years ago, when hashtags first started appearing in my Twitter timeline, I just sort of shrugged them off. I couldn’t see their value through the visual damage they imposed. Even today, I have a hard time #taking #anyone #seriously when they use more than one or two #hashtags for a #single #tweet – mostly because they just look bad.

Daniel Victor recently wrote about this, saying he believes “a tweet free of hashtags is more pleasing to the eye, more easily consumed, and thus more likely to be retweeted (which is a proven way of growing your audience)”.

Now here’s where I have to admit I have come to realize three important facts about hashtags:

  1. Hashtags are used by both users and marketers. Like it or not, you cannot deny usage of hashtags is on the rise. The most compelling thing about this is that hashtags weren’t created as a marketing tactic, yet their use has demanded marketer adoption.

  2. Hashtags do have great potential. Even in their most basic form – for taxonomy – hashtags can trump inferral through machines. No one knows better what they’re saying than the person saying it.

  3. Hashtags actually do increase engagement. It may be tough to recognize through subjectivity, but the reality is, hashtags provide a mechanism for easier discovery, encourage brevity, promote a single key binding for disparate data, and even help inject tone/personality.

Those three factors are so strong, in fact, that I co-founded a company that is basically built on top of hashtags. At Tagboard, we’re building tools that help both users and marketers use hashtags in a way that benefits both parties.

My opinion of hashtags is admittedly biased, and the root of my distaste for them is my design sense; they just look bad. Meanwhile, the engineer in me sees the yet-unrealized potential hashtags have. And then “Sensible Sean” sees hashtags as just harmless and fun.