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Inventor of Twitter Hashtags Thinks They Are Overused (& I Agree)

May 27, 2010

In case you missed it earlier this month, the tech blog Gigaom had an interesting post The Short and Illustrious History of Twitter #Hashtags about Chris Messina, the guy who “invented” hashtags and what brought them out of the “geekosphere”. The post mentions that Messina now thinks that hashtags are overused.

I agree with Messina and am concerned that overusing hashtags keeps Twitter in the “geekosphere” and scares off people who aren’t yet using this great tool. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with tech-oriented communities online and I don’t think Twitter will save the world. My concern is how we use them and unintentionally create barriers or exclude people from experimenting with digital tools. I’ve had conversations with folks who don’t use Twitter and get tripped up by “all the weird symbols”.  For these non-users, Twitter seems like another language that has to be learned. My question: why should it be?

Let’s take a step back and think about why we use hashtags. I’ve found that following hashtags or search terms is often more effective than following people on Twitter. If you’re using the search feature on Twitter or an application like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, hashtags and search terms make it far easier to find conversations and information from sources you might not know.

With this in mind, my contention is that hashtags should be reserved for tweets on a topic that does not include the search term in the tweet body. For example, here’s a sample tweet that demonstrates overusing hashtags:

Urgent Action Needed – Harmful #Immigration #Detention Amendments Introduced in Senate. http://… #ri4a #p2 #cir #dwn

The final four hashtags are useful because they are abbreviations and tags that many people follow.

But why is it necessary to tag immigration and detention? If I’m following the search term “immigration”, I’ll have a fuller understanding about who’s talking about immigration than I would with #immigration. Searching for #immigration is far narrower. I think you should only use #immigration if the word immigration is not in the body of the tweet. Using #dwn also tags tweets that relate to immigration enforcement. (The http://… is meant to indicate a link but I’m trying to protect the identify of the tweeter I’m reviewing).

So in summary, here’s how I think we should use hashtags and search terms:

  • When you use Twitter search or set up your Twitter desktop application, search for hashtags that are abbreviations, like #ri4a or #p2 but, for real words, don’t use the hashtag, like “immigration”.
  • For the most part, try to use hashtags at the end of tweets and in front of well-known abbreviations. To discover these hashtags, follow the lead of other tweeters on the topic you’re interested in.
  • If the tweet you’re sending doesn’t contain a key search term, add a hashtag at the end of the tweet followed by the real/whole word. For example, if I’m sending a tweet related to the Gulf oil spill, I could add #environment or #green at the end so people following those terms will see it.

So, using these suggestions, this is what the above tweet would look like:

Urgent Action Needed – Harmful Immigration Detention Amendments Introduced in Senate. http://… #ri4a #p2 #cir #dwn

Isn’t that easier to read?

I’m interested to hear what you think of these suggestions for making Twitter more accessible to new users. What do you think?

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