Would Facebook hashtags help steal the social TV show from Twitter?

By Cory Bergman 

Facebook is planning to add hashtags “as a way to group conversations,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Facebook is testing whether to follow Twitter’s lead and allow users to click on a hashtag to pull up all posts about similar topics or events so it can quickly index conversations around trending topics and build those conversations up,” the paper reported, pointing out that Facebook’s Instagram already uses hashtags.

Hashtags originated on Twitter and quickly became a staple of social TV. During the Super Bowl, Twitter said half the commercials aired with a hashtag. Despite the fact Facebook wields an exponentially larger user base, only 7% of the commercials featured Facebook, according to the Altimeter Group. Twitter has been beefing up its sales ranks, partnering with Nielsen and scooping up Bluefin Labs in an effort to tap into the biggest advertising pool of all: television. And it’s beginning to work.

“Historically, Facebook has come first for advertisers and Twitter has been a nice add-on,” said eMarketer’s Debbie Williamson in the WSJ story. “Twitter has been more aggressive.”

Twitter has been fanning the flames for years by aggressively showcasing how many people use the platform during big TV events. However, Facebook’s predominately private platform has made it difficult to take credit for social TV conversations happening behind the scenes.

As Marketing Land Danny Sullivan explained last week, “For social media viewing, Twitter is live TV, Facebook is DVR.” Now it looks like Facebook wants to be both.

The addition of Facebook hashtags would co-opt some of Twitter’s social TV spotlight, but the question is how much? Facebook has already rolled out the ability to “@” reference someone — a bit of a power user feature — but we still think of @name as a Twitter convention. If you see a hashtag on TV, you instantly think of Twitter, and Facebook’s addition of hashtags isn’t going to change that perception overnight. However, if hashtags begin to gain widespread traction on Facebook, it could commoditize the convention, blunting Twitter’s hashtag advantage and cutting Facebook into the action.

Facebook’s likely goal, however, is to encourage users to engage in more real-time conversations across the public graph. This would, in theory, drive more active usage and by extension, targeted ad impressions. Of course, private posts will remain private, but hashtags would generate and surface more public content if adopted at scale.

We’ll just have to wait and see. WSJ said hashtags aren’t likely to be introduced imminently.