Of all of the techniques, strategies, flotsam and jetsam to spawn from social media since its meteoric rise in the mid-2000’s, there may be nothing as polarizing as the hashtag. Some users utilize hashtags any chance that they get, others see them as an aesthetic and textual nuisance.
But the real question is: are hashtags useful in any real way?
Today, another social network, Vine, announced the platform-wide adoption of hashtag-focused organization and search. Vine CTO Nick Kroll wrote in a blog post for the company:
“To surface that content, we’re introducing trending hashtags, which show you the fastest-rising hashtags on Vine. These hashtags signify those that have moved up quickly in popularity; they aren’t necessarily the hashtags with the most posts.”
Using hashtags to track trends has been the mode of choice not only for Vine parent company Twitter, but also for Flickr, Path and Instagram. Last month, there was even talk of Facebook taking up the hashtag trend, though the social media giant has remained silent on the topic. On the surface, incorporating a searchable component based on hashtags is a helpful thing: users would be able to discover topics and search for what they want quickly, without having to bother with further context.
However, from a journalistic standpoint, the hashtag isn’t only an eyesore, it’s remarkably lazy. The problem with hashtags lie in their relative ambiguity: there’s no standard for hashtags and no long-running conversation. For example, an event like SXSW can have relevant commentary with any number of hashtags, including #SXSW, #SXSW2013, #SXSW13, #SXSWi and much more. Hashtags are even worse when the goal is engagement with readers, since it’s rare that you’ll get a guaranteed audience for any of it.
“When the goal is to increase your audience, the hashtag’s effectiveness depends entirely on how many people are searching for it, a number to which we have no access,” Social Media staff editor Daniel Victor wrote in his Nieman Journalism Lab article “Hashtags considered #harmful.” “Additionally, some searches, like #socialmedia, return results from tweets that mention ‘social media’ without the hashtag.”
In short, the hashtag, as a function, is suspended in a thick veil of mystery. There’s no way to truly calculate the audience attending to a hashtag, to estimate the accuracy of a hashtag-based search, or even find adequate context for hashtags at all. It’s problematic, to say the least, and it’s difficult to find true practical use for the hashtag if it all remains so vague.