Examining Facebook’s hashtags

photo carré thomas JestinGreat news! Whether you are a brand page or a personal account, you can now add hashtags to your Facebook status updates and they are both clickable and searchable.

Once upon a time….

Hashtags were born on Twitter in 2007 somehow and gained its badge of honor when the micro blogging has formalized it, so to speak, and made it clickable.  The traditional # symbol has been seen widely on other social networks, namely Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest, and one would wonder when and if Facebook would follow the trend.

The “hash symbol” is above all a new form of expression full of fascination: it allows, as we all know now, to summarize, describe, identify and framework one’s thoughts in one or few words. It aims to clarify the message, launch a topic or take part in ongoing conversations, joke contests or other textual phenomena.

Just like how journalists would craft new words and make them popular, hashtag-addicted users sought their fame trying to blend the winning hashtag: this unique and compelling formula is tasked to tease, and measure with a dash of humor, and creativity latest news that other people will hasten to endorse. We still remember brilliant hashtags such as #Radiolondres (#RadioLondon) launched during the French Presidential elections that kept airing nonchalantly in the final stretch of the political race! In other words hashtaggers attempt to crystallize the zeitgeist that is the cultural and intellectual element to hot current topics.

… So what’s new?

Most users did not wait for the announcement to compulsively hashtag their Facebook posts, mimicking the practice set forth by Twitter. Some would also acknowledge that Instagram, which populates Facebook News Feeds with the hashtags, has contributed.

Facebook did already introduce the links to centralize friends’ updates in the News Feed. All friends’ posts about the same YouTube video, for example, are collected in the same stream of conversation for enhanced consistency.

What changes then? Basically the hashtags on Facebook are now active. Words prefixed by the symbol ‘#’ are clickable and used to collect all the public conversations from friends, brands and other users into a public collective box. Social conversations are made even larger. Facebook wants to make content more accessible and easy to find, far beyond one’s circle of friends.

In the footsteps of Twitter, hashtags are not only clickable, but could be shortlisted in trending topics — topics that are tagged at a greater rate than other tags. The feature is not yet available on Facebook, but it is likely to land on the platform in the near feature.

To be accurate, a very important precision is required: on the technical side Twitter and Facebook  did not wait until the traditional # symbol became widely popular to list topic trends. It was technically possible to follow user’s typed words just as well, like Google and its trends and topcharts.

Facebook vs. Twitter

One of the reasons why Facebook has finally decided to play the hashtag game could be to compete with Twitter in the area of measuring TV audiences. It is at least what one could understand from their press releases. It’s a safe bet that many more people use Facebook rather than Twitter to live-follow TV programs. Facebook therefore will benefit from posting “trending topics” country by country. The fun part is that one would not even need hashtags to do so, as explained just above.

Twitter has a substantial advantage over Facebook in the way that most Tweets are public: it is a great opportunity for developers to open access a large chunk of conversations, analyze them and spot trends, and gauge the pulse of the society.

But unlike on Twitter, Facebook topics are drastically limited by privacy settings: users will only be able to see public posts and content made visible to them by friends. Developers can’t access topic freely. Facebook and its innovative bent will be capable to surprise us about its “big data” by introducing state-of-the-art analysis, like “Peace,” that crosses the number of friendships between Palestinians and Israelis.

Some articles are posted publicly by the users, and developers can already search through the Graph application programming interface. But one must proceed by specific keyword: there is no access to the “fire hose,” of Facebook, in other words the “raw flows,” of all public Facebook posts. In theory, therefore, a developer could well build an application to track specific words, whether they are prefixed by the hash symbol or not. Our latest internal tests at KRDS’ show that API can retrieve only a small part of the available data, not all the results in real time. Greater openness to developers would be most welcome.

However, these public publications still represent a very small percentage of the total and brings back the fundamental dilemma that tears Facebook: either the leading social network embraces its socializing mission,  a site where one connects primarily with his private circle of acquaintances (and some brands), or it becomes a collective public place boldly  inspired by Twitter.

In my opinion, it is almost impossible to easily marry the two modes of functioning. That would imply the ability to switch from one mode to another in a way that it is clear to a billion users — a true challenge of ergonomics. I can already see how too many users could get lost along the way, sensitive information could be made public accidentally and bad buzz with headlines in the press articles reading of broken marriages and privacy intrusion. In short, Facebook better think twice before opening Pandora’s box.

Ironically, it is precisely the private aspect of Facebook that could unleash the full potential of the hashtags. Some would say that the best way to drown out content on Twitter is hashtags! During the Super Bowl, 167 tweets per minute posted with the hashtag “#superbowl.” How to cope and digest all that amount of information? On Twitter one can sort by by “Top / All / People you follow”, but it’s a little sketchy to say the least. Facebook operates algorithms that allow us to follow the threads on a given topic within our closest friends.

Today, only unwinding the chronological thread of the subject over the hashtagged publications is possible. One can expect that the stream will be getting richer and richer once Facebook will be injecting a high dose of EdgeRank.

Watch out, marketer community!

Unlike on Twitter, where brands are free to hold photo/text/video contests by using hashtags, we remind that on Facebook it is against the platform promotion policies to launch a game and give away prizes in the framework of a game based on the use of a native Facebook feature. Sweepstakes, lucky draws, instant winner and other sorts of contest must be run on applications. It will be interesting to see how brands will make use of this new feature active hashtag on Facebook. And above all: eventually will they be ready to pay to be listed in the “trending topics”? To be continued!

Thomas Jestin is a co-founder of KRDS, a social media and mobile marketing agency part of Facebook’s Preferred Marketing Developer Program. At the recently held “Facebook Innovation Competition,” KRDS is the only non-American contestant to have won among the 260 agencies. Thomas is a digital strategist and has been helping brands leverage social media since 2008, he has spoken at many conferences throughout Europe and is currently based out of Singapore overseeing KRDS’ expansion in Asia.