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?

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