Making the most of hashtags

#hashtags logoA couple of days ago a new site called Hashtags.org was launched by Cody Marx Bailey and Aaron Farnham, two ambitious college students folks from Bryan & College Station, Texas.

I wanted to take a moment to comment on its arrival and also suggest a slight modification to the purpose and use of hashtags, now that we have a service for making visible this kind of metadata.

First of all, if you’re unfamiliar with hashtags or why people might be prepending words in their tweets with hash symbols (#), read Groups for Twitter; or A Proposal for Twitter Tag Channels to get caught up on where this idea came from.

You should note two things: first, when I made my initial proposal, Twitter didn’t have the track feature; second, I was looking to solve some pretty specific problems, largely related to groupings and to filtering and to amplifying intent (i.e. when making generic statements, appending an additional tag or two might help others better understand your intent). For consistency, my initial proposal required that all important terms be prefixed with the hash, despite how ugly this makes individual updates look. The idea was that, I’d try it out, see how it worked, and if someone built something off of it, or other people adopted the convention, I could decide if the hassle and ugliness were ultimately worth it. A short time after I published my proposal, the track feature launched and obviated parts of my proposal.

Though the track feature provided a means for following explicit information, there was still no official means to add additional information, whether for later recall purposes or to help provide more context for a specific update. And since Twitter currently reformats long links as meaningless TinyURLs, it’s nice to be able to provide folks with a hint about the content at the end of the link. On top of those benefits, hashtags provide a mechanism for leveraging Twitter’s tracking functionality even if your update doesn’t include a specific keyword by itself.

Now, I’ll grant you that a lot of this is esoteric. Especially given that Twitter is predicated on answering the base question “what are you doing?” I mean, a lot of this hashtag stuff is gravy, but for those who use it, it could provide a great deal of value, just like the community-driven @reply convention.

Moreover, we’ve already seen some really compelling and unanticipated uses of hashtags on Twitter — in particular the use of the hashtag as a common means for identifying information related to the San Diego fires.

And that’s really just the beginning. With a service like Tweeterboard providing even more interesting and contextual social statistics, it won’t be long before you’ll be able to discover people who talk about similar topics or ideas that you might enjoy following. And now, with Hashtags.org, trends in the frequency of certain topics will become all the more visible and quantifiable.

BUT, there is a limit here, and just because we can add all this fancy value on top of the blogosphere’s central intelligence system doesn’t mean that our first attempt at doing so is the best way to do it, or that we should definitely do it at all, especially if it comes at a high cost (perceived or real) to other users of the system.

Already it’s been made clear to me that the use of hashtags can be annoying, adding more noise than value. Some people just don’t like how they look. Still others feel that they encumber a simple communication system that should do one thing and one thing well, secondary uses be damned if they don’t blend with the how the system is generally used. This isn’t del.icio.us or Ma.gnolia after all.

And these points are all valid and well taken, but I think there’s some middle ground here. Used sparingly, respectfully and in appropriate measure, I think that the value generated from the use of hashtags is substantial enough to warrant their continued use, and it isn’t just hashtags.org that suggests this to me. In fact, I think hashtags.org, in the short term, might do more damage than good, if only because it means people will have to compose messages in unnatural ways to take advantage of the service, and this is never the way to design good software (sorry guys, but I think there’s room to improve the basic track feature yet).

In fact, with the release of the track feature, it became clear that every word used in a post is important and holds value (something that both Jack and Blaine noted in our early discussions). But it’s also true that without certain keywords present in a post, the track feature is useless. In this case in particular, where they provide additional context, I think hashtags serve a purpose. Consider this:

“Tara really rocked that presentation!”

versus:

“Tara really rocked that presentation! #barcampblock”

In the latter example, the presence of the hashtag provides two explicit benefits: first, anyone tracking “barcampblock” will get the update, and second, those who don’t know where Tara is presenting will be clued into the context of the post.

In another example:

“300,000 people evacuated in San Diego county now.”

versus

“#sandiegofire: 300,000 people evacuated in San Diego county now.”

Again, the two benefits are present here, demonstrating the value of concatenated hashtags where using the space-separated phrase “San Diego” would not have been caught by the track feature.

What I don’t think is as useful as when I first made my proposal (pre-tracking) is calling out specific words in a post for emphasis (unless you’re referring to a place or airport, but that’s mostly personal preference). For example, revising my previous proposal, I think that this approach is now gratuitous:

“Eating #popcorn at #Batman in #IMAX.”

Removing the hashes doesn’t actually reduce the meaning of this post, nor does it affect the tracking feature. And, leaving them out makes the whole update look much better:

“Eating popcorn at Batman in IMAX.”

If you wanted to give your friends some idea of where you are, it might be okay to use:

“Eating popcorn at Batman in IMAX at #Leows.”

…but even still, the hash is not wholly necessary, if only to help denote some specialness to the term “Leows”.

So, with that, I’m thrilled to see hashtags.org get off the ground, but it’s use should not interfere with the conventional use of Twitter. As well, they provide additional value when used conservatively, at least until there is a better way to insert metadata into a post.

As with most technology development, it’s best to iterate quickly, try a bunch of things (rather than just talk about them) and see what actually sticks. In the case of hashtags, I think we’re gradually getting to a pretty clear and useful application of the idea, if not the perfect implementation so far. Anyway, this kind of “conversational development” that allows the best approach to emerge over time while smoothing out the rough edges of an original idea seems to be a pretty effective way to go about making change, and it’s promising to see efforts like hashtags.org take a simple — if not controversial — proposal, and push it forward yet another step.

5 Comments

  1. at 8pm on Dec 23rd # |

    Terraminds (http://terraminds.com/twitter/) also recognizes hashtags as different. (ie, http://terraminds.com/twitter/query?query=%23diso&submit=search+in+updates), note the #blah are linked unless they are the current result…

    Will check out hashtags.org

  2. at 8pm on Dec 23rd # |

    Chris,

    At the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back I’d like to add that TwitBox was the first 3rd party Twitter client to support #hashtags. I’m not sure if other’s have decided to support the concept but I will be keeping with it and adding to it as more posts like this one try to solidify the idea.

  3. Teketen said
    at 6am on Dec 26th # |

    Very usefull. We are triying to get from the community all we can to create a convention microformat (nanoformats) and this is one of the questions we have to accept #tag. Now is solved, thanks!

  4. at 2pm on Jan 5th # |

    I’ve blogged a similar idea, which would allow the publishing of microformats within twitter posts:

    http://pigsonthewing.wordpress.com/2008/01/05/suggested-method-of-publishing-microformats-in-twitter-posts/

  5. at 11am on Jan 7th # |

    I think there’s another very interesting possibility for hashtags which answers a growing need on realtime blogging / microblogging platforms like Twitter. Now that I’m following people from nearly every timezone in the world I’m wishing more than ever that there was a single timezone-neutral reference point for coordination of future events.

    For instance, when one of my friends in Australia (I’m in Ireland myself) tweets that they’re about to start live video streaming some event they’re attending at 1pm, I need to first remember that they’re in the AEDT timezone then convert that to GMT. Alright for one friend once per day, but not for dozens numerous times per day. Horribly messy. So last century.

    Now recall that the watch maker Swiss Swatch tried to solve this kind of problem a decade ago with “Swatch Internet Time” (SIT) and the idea of dividing the day into a thousand “beats”. The notation used to reference a SIT time is @. So @999, for instance, is the same time everywhere in the world.

    When I first blogged about this today I made the mistake of saying that I’d like to revive SIT. It’s a mistake because a universal time reference shouldn’t be tied to a single commercial brand. So how about using hastags instead? Instead of tweeting “I’m about to do such and such @059″, how about tweeting “I’m about to do such and such at #059″.

    Instead of calling it Swatch Internet Time we could just call it “hashtime”. Instead of saying “I’m going to do something at 270 beats”, why not say “I’m going to do something at hash270″.

    I can imagine at least one huge benefit if this convention were widely adopted – we could build Twittervision like service for scanning what people are *intending* to do at certain times of the day. For instance, if I wanted to record a Skype conversation among four friends in different timezones at some time tonight, I could just propose a time of #0830 and my friends could easily see if that clashes with anything else on that hashtag (for their group of friends).

    The advantage of stick with 1000 time divisions per day and the Swiss meridian is that you could, in order to bootstrap the efffort, use the downloads from the Swatch website for tracking ‘hashtime’ :)

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