Hash of glory

By: | Published: August 9, 2015 12:02 AM

Hashtags, which we all use extensively on social media, can be used in a variety of ways. But what’s the one hard and fast rule? Just use them

BACK IN August 2007, designer Chris Messina asked his Twitter followers their opinion on using the pound sign (#) to categorise conversations on the micro-blogging website. His tweet read: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

While Messina’s tweet inadvertently made him the first person to use a ‘hashtag’ on Twitter, it added yet another word to the dictionary of Internet language.

The technical explanation of a hashtag will bring out heavy words like ‘metadata’, ‘tag’, etc, but in lay terms, a hashtag is a label that helps users find a stream of content related to a certain topic. In even simpler terms, add a # (hash sign, number sign, octothorpe, etc) sign before a keyword and you got yourself a hashtag.

We all use them extensively—sometimes hashtags are longer than a user’s original post! However, hashtags are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they were used as early as the late Eighties and early Nineties in Internet Relay Chat to classify content such as images, videos and messages into groups. Twitter started using hashtags in 2009 and, eventually, ‘trending’ topics or tweets became popular in 2010.

Golden rules

There are many ways to use hashtags effectively. But the one hard and fast rule is: just use them. A September
2012 Twitter blogpost on “Best practices for journalists” mentioned how they should be used for context and that “tweets with hashtags can increase engagement almost 100% (2x) for individuals and 50% (1.5x) for brands”. More importantly, your tweets get noticed. “When you include hashtags in your tweets, your tweets become more visible, and over time you gather more twitter followers,” the blogpost added.

And it’s not just Twitter. The list of websites and platforms that support hashtags is almost endless: Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Soundcloud and Tumblr, to name a few.

Here is a list of some pointers you should keep in mind while using hashtags:

Short and simple: If you are using hashtags on Twitter, you need to keep them short. Remember that your tweet can’t be longer than 140 characters, so you don’t want your tweets to be overloaded with hashtags. There is no such limit on Facebook, but sometimes too many hashtags smack of spamming.

Two good: While research shows that tweets with hashtags are likely to be retweeted more, it also says too many hashtags can backfire. Use more than two hashtags and your engagement drops by an average of 17%.

Stay relevant: Using relevant tags makes things easy for other users. People who are following the same development that you are will find it easier to find you with ‘relevant’ tags.

No spaces, punctuation: A trivial mistake most of us make while using hashtags is to use punctuation. If there is any space or punctuation mark between the # sign and the keywords or within the hashtag, the hyperlink collapses.

The ones that went viral

Once hashtags start gathering steam—or trending—they can make a profound impact in the social media sphere. Here are 10 hashtags that made the news by going viral:

#iAmMalala: Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, shot to prominence for her advocacy for women’s education in Pakistan. She was the target of an assassination attempt in October 2012, but survived.

#ModiSarkar: The most prominent hashtag when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power after the 2014 general elections, led by Narendra Modi.

#IceBucketChallenge: Videos of people performing the ALS ice bucket challenge—it basically meant dumping a bucket of ice water on yourself or someone else—went viral in mid-2013. The challenge was initiated to promote awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

#PrayForMH370: The tragedy of the disappearance of international passenger Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in March 2014.

#UmbrellaRevolution: When the citizens of Hong Kong, particularly the youth, protested against the government’s
election process.

#Gharwapsi: When Hindutva groups organised massive religious conversions across India.

#MakeinIndia: The government’s flagship programme to promote domestic manufacturing in India

#BringBackOurGirls: When the Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria, users around the world took to social media to spread the word with this hashtag

#Savetheinternet: This one went viral during the net neutrality debate in India, which was prompted by Trai’s consultation paper on the regulatory framework for over-the-top services

#JeSuisCharlie: Tributes poured in for victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack with this hashtag. Gunmen had attacked the Paris office of the French satirical weekly after controversial cartoons were published on Prophet Muhammad


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