Hashtags and the desire to own and organise

POSTED IN social media, twitter | TAGS : , , 1 February 2010

One of my favourite books on social technology is ‘Everything Is Miscellaneous‘  by David Weinberger — a book about the power of disorder, that’s disorder in information organisation rather than the more visceral milk bottles, petrol and rags sense. It’s a book that will leave your head bursting with the potential of information, its sharing and searching. The essential point is that computing power and overarching networks allow us to dispose of restrictive methods of information organisation and sort only at the point in which we need. The concept of tagging (assigning keywords to objects) is a big part of this — it allows patterns to emerge through folksomony.

Tagging objects that aren’t easily searched, such as photos, especially benefit from the social indexing that tagging can provide — to me it’s all about how common descriptions (or picking out the ‘important bits’) emerge.

On Twitter tagging has a slightly different, or an additional, reason for being. The hashtag (a word, or collection of characters identified as metadata by use of a # symbol in front of it — based on an IRC convention) is used more to facilitate collection of tweets about a single issue.

When they were first used, Twitter was a much smaller (and more difficult to search) place — users had to follow an account especially to get updates of hashtags they were interested in — it was part of registering those words as important enough to be worth searching; as not every word could be. Twitter is now much easier to search (although the persistence of the database is not great) so tags aren’t needed in quite the same way.

A random list of things that I find interesting about the use of hashtags on ‘modern’ Twitter:

  • They’re part of a folksonomy, requiring no registration or official status — yet organisations feel the need to have “official hashtags” and some people feel the need to ask “what’s the hashtag?” when they could look and try things out themselves. Both of these seem to come from a fear of disorder.
  • Twitter search (and other search tools) don’t do anything special with the # — so if the word is unique (eg firefox – at least in the computer sense) then the hash symbol does nothing except indicate that the user thinks the word is important.
  • The pressure of creating that “official hashtag” is between readability (eg #hellodigital), conciseness (eg #hd) and uniqueness (eg #hd09).  It’s very hard to get that right.

The idea of an “official” meaning for a tag within a folksonomy is an odd one, for tags to be usable in ‘collection’ they need to be unique — but as they lose meaning and become tags for machines (that is for aggregation) rather than for people (readable, searchable without prior knowledge) overlap is inevitable.

A year or so ago, I decided to try to define a format for people to explain what a hashtag was representing — I wanted something that could be done in a tweet and searched for with whatever search method that people were using. We ended up with an account @tagref that you could tweet with a definition (meaning that a search for a hashtag and “@tagref”)  would bring up the definition. This didn’t really take off — Twitter’s lack of holding tweets in the search for more that a few days was a bit of a problem (a long-running tag would need to be re-defined), as was the ‘death’ of search (for most people it’s acceptable to ask questions of the network rather than use tools.

But some people have used @tagref or a number of similar services — and that led me yesterday to the battle being had over the #esm hashtag. I saw this definition:
Twitter / Mary Bradley: @tagref #esm is definition ...

“#esm is definition Official Experts of Social Media hashtag”

This piqued my interest, mainly because an “expert of social media” is really a bit of an insult round these parts (rightly or wrongly) — so I had a look to see who was using it. Therein I came across this bit of protectionism:


Twitter / David Gerzof: Thank you for pushing #ESM ...

a sort of “I was here first” message.

Deliberately hijacking a hashtag is spam, of course, but to accidentally use the same (short, non-obvious, non-descriptive) tag — hardly a crime. Both sides were getting a little heated, so some people decided to lighten the mood — and maybe prove a point about how conversation can’t be kept within boundaries on an open system.

What are hashtags for, why do you use them — and do you expect to ‘own’ them?

21 COMMENTS

  1. Andy Mabbett says:

    While you make many valid points, I do think it’s useful for event organisers to announce – or at least suggest – a hashtag before the event starts, so that people can jump straight in, find fellow attendees (or other interested parties) or pre-configure tools. This is pure pragmatism, of course.

    • Jon Bounds says:

      I’m sure that’s the case, but it sort of defeats a one aspect of how powerful tagging can be. It that sense hashtags aren’t really tags, but something else.

      • peeebeee says:

        Surely hashtags are not just one thing, though – I agree with Andy M that it can be helpful if an event (or a TV programme – #bbcrevolution is a good example) suggests a hashtag. It then becomes a way of curating the discussion around that event/programme/whatever. But you see much less formal uses all the time – a concise way of expressing important keywords about a tweet, for example, as an encouragement to those replying or re-tweeting to do the same.

        My conclusion – there’s no single ‘right’ way to use hashtags. Just like there’s no single ‘right’ way to use Twitter….

    • I agree that for an event, it is useful for everyone to use the same hashtag, so that *all* tweets related to that event can be collected and archived if desired.

  2. Not being an ‘Expert of Social Media’ ;) I didn’t even know there was an option to make the official. I think suggested ones for certain things can be helpful, as Andy says below but I also think that not defining them can lead to some interesting and inventive uses.
    My favourite use of hashtags is the completely random/ridiculous ones that get used for comic shorthand such as #havingareallybaddayneedboozenow – of absolutely no use to anyone really, but they do work in context and they make me giggle.

  3. Thanks for this post! I was one of the tweeters who originally asked that “Experts of Social Media” started using a new and unique hashtag. I only asked for this due to the fact that Emerson’s social media class had been using the #ESM hashtag for months, and it was one of the main ways we communicated as a class outside of the classroom.

    Hijacking a hashtag that is currently in use is the equivalent of jumping into the middle of a conversation with people you don’t know and talking about something completely different. I found it highly ironic that the “experts” of social media would not know this.

    Oh well, its just a hashtag.

    • Russ L says:

      Deliberate hijacking, maybe.

      In this context it sounds more like the equivalent of shouting from one end of a field to another at the same time that some other people happen to be shouting across the same field.

      • Hi Russ,
        I think your example works if for instance we both started using the # at the same time. This was not the case. #ESM was a well established # so much so that a week ago it was the top trending topic on twitter in Boston.

  4. Jo Ind says:

    Quite apart from hashtags being used to order content, I enjoy their use by extension as a way of asuming importance when we all know there’s none there #impostmodernthereforeihashtag

  5. Mary Bradley says:

    I don’t think that we “got heated” about the #ESM hashtag – quite the opposite in fact. Our team, Experts of Social Media, is comprised of a handful of young professionals who like to laugh and have fun. When we researched the #ESM tag, it was hardly being used, so we worked it into our planning for the Twitter instructional session. Unfortunately, shortly after we researched it, Emerson College began using it again and were apparently much aghast to see it appearing from our class. We thought it would be funny to register it as the “official tag” of our company, knowing full well that there is no such thing as an “official” tag. We also laughingly posted a Twitpic with the tag written on my hand and the #ESM tag appearing in the Tweet. When others joined in tagging #ESM on everything from “evidently some misunderstanding” to “ Elongated Salad Mantra,” our whole team was in tears with laughter. It was a perfect example for our class about why Twitter is so amazing and amazingly complex at the same time. In truth, we will likely continue our usage of this tag since it is the acronym for our company name.

    Also, on the Experts of Social Media LLC name; while others in this field may not appreciate our use of the word “experts,” you also must take into consideration that you are most definitely not our target market. :)

    Thanks for the write up! We are looking forward to a continued battle over the #ESM hashtag!

    Twitter.com/mary_bradley
    Expertsofsocialmedia.com

    • The #ESM tag was not hardly being used, on 1/26 it was the top trending topic in Boston when the #ESM class met with a team from Google. http://bostontweet.com/tweets/tweet/109947

      It has been used heavily since the fall of this year.

      Also its important to note that even when I @replied you multiple times, instead of engaging in a dialog you mocked the importance of the #ESM tag in what we do as a class. If you were a social media “expert” you clearly would have handled the situation differently.

      • Mary Bradley says:

        Alas, all of the world is not in Boston. If you will kindly reread my original post, you’ll be sure to note that “shortly after we researched it, Emerson College began using it again.” :)

        Just think of how disappointed you’ll be when I start using the #clearly hashtag. Clearly. :)

        Twitter.com/mary_bradley
        Expertsofsocialmedia.com

        • Why do you have such an attitude when it comes to #ESM? We were there first, we asked you to stop mucking up our conversation with your training-wheeled tweeters, yet you continue to spam the crap out of #ESM.

          I wish I could get my jollies by being a troll, must be an easy life.

          • Brian Hess says:

            You #clearly must be talking about that classic but still tasty staple in kitchens around the world from Hormel Foods Corporation – SPAM®. Please reference Dictionary.com for the definition of spam. ;) #cleary

            twitter.com/brian_hess
            ExpertsOfSocialMedia.com

          • rob riggs says:

            Matt’s reply is a perfect illustration of personal character shining through via social media. Ever try an anger management class, Matt? Maybe Emerson offers one… :)

            twitter.com/robriggsiii
            ExpertsOfSocialMedia.com

  6. At risk of stepping on toes and reiterating that which has already been said, I’m here to make a short and simple comment.

    Emerson had it’s first Social Media class last year (Spring 2009). It has since been using #ESM as a way to collect all posts related to the class in an open, searchable environment. Bounds makes an excellent comment – that an open conversation is very likely to be violated eventually. The problem that arises here is that by using #ESM for two different classes, it leaves everyone (not just emerson, not just Experts in Social Media) sifting through the posts finding something meaningful. Granted, this may sound lazy, but that’s why we used the Hashtag in the first place – to organize ourselves.

    Someone recently called Emerson’s reaction “childish”, and in a way they’re right. People got defensive, clinging tight to something that has worked for a long time. But the other childish reaction was the willing and intentional continued behavior after people expressed annoyance with what the experts in social media had done.

    It was the equivalent of walking backwards, accidentally stepping on someone’s toe and -instead of going a different way – staying there, twiddling your thumbs.

    This turned longer than it had to be, but the point is made.
    @Matt, don’t make them the bad guy, they just don’t understand what they did wrong.
    @ Rob Riggs, was it necessary to turn this into a personal attack on Matt’s character? I’d expect more from a so-called expert.

    @Everyone, take a step back and drop the pissing contest.

    • Russ L says:

      This is massively pissy-patronising in itself, though.

      Everyone is chaining from different axioms. It’s like horse-rustling in the wild west or summat.

    • Mary Bradley says:

      Ah, a perfectly reasonable post :) I think that the impetus behind our goading of the Emerson group is mainly that no one, especially a college class with a roster of rotating participants, can claim ownership of a three letter acronym/unspecific hashtag. It’s all fair game. We don’t expect them to stop using it and they shouldn’t expect us to stop using it either. Hopefully, eventually one of our groups will come to the conclusion that “winning” this particular tag is not worth the confusion caused by the varied usage and claim another (perhaps more specific) tag. I don’t imagine it will be us, however, unless we opt for a new company name. I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted on that. ;)

      twitter.com/mary_bradley
      expertsofsocialmedia.com

  7. Helen says:

    I remember the 11 bus tag changed from #111111 (or was it #1111?!) because you were getting “Stuck in traffic by Selly Oak Sainsbury’s – glad I don’t come this way to work!” and then “Honour the dead! People without poppies should be shot!” which was getting confusing. Although it was quite funny. And you could say, well, 11 bus got there first and as I recall, it was decided in advance it would have that tag. But then Bounder & Co. changed it to avoid confusion, to #11bus. Which was perhaps a more intuitive tag anyway.

    I don’t remember anyone having a tantrum. Bounder didn’t demand that people observing Armistace Day with the same tag he was using change to something else. “This is the official 11 bus hash tag! Stop talking about the war! More buses! Look, we’re in Erdington!”

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