13 May 2010 @ 7:26 AM 

We interrupt your normal beer blog content for this important public service message.

Dear Beer Internet,

Let’s talk about hash tags. You know what I’m talking about when I say hash tags, right? I mean the little number-sign-phrase that you’re using at the end of your Twitter post. Those are hash tags. Here’s an example:

@PenandPint Any Carolinians heading to the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival in Charlotte tomorrow? #ncbeer

That “#ncbeer”? That’s the hash tag. You’ll note that it’s clickable. It’s clickable on the Twitter web interface, Tweetdeck, and almost every other Twitter client, too. It opens up a search. Go ahead – try it. Don’t be afraid.

Cool. I want to talk to you about them because they’re distracting. Well-used hash tags are good references. Poorly used hash tags are clutter. They’re difficult to quickly parse, especially on a mobile screen, and they reduce the value of your 140-characters. If I had to read your tweet more than once to try to figure out what you said, you failed at Twitter.

In other words, I’m trying to help you, here.

Now that we know what hash tags look like and what they do when you click on them, let me tell you a little about where they came from.

Hash tags are a form of taxonomy and classification adopted by Twitterers from information science. The use of tags was probably introduced to Twitter through people who were used to using them in blogging. Many forms of blogging software (including the WordPress blog that you are now reading) allow post tags for classification, different than the “Category” classification that also exists. Hash tags tend to be more specific than categories, though in some cases they are the same, or similar, words.

Classification through tags is what is considered “bottom-up hierarchy” vs. categories which are generally “top-down.”

Let’s take a moment to talk about that.

“Top-down” refers to a system in which categories are broad and pre-assigned. Once a thing (blog post, twitter update, etc.) is created, you would then assign said thing to one or more existing categories. It is then categorized. If you were to look up the category, all of the items that you assigned to the category would appear. For instance, this post is categorized in “media” and “meta” on my blog, since I’m talking about (social) media and it is rather self-referencing (meta). These are categories that I have set previously and I tend to smush all existing posts into my category structure. On rare occasion, I’ll create another category because I feel like I need one.

“Bottom-up” refers to a system in which categories are created based on the tags assigned to items. If a tag is used frequently, it essentially works as a category, since it can then be used to reference a large amount of content. If a tag is used infrequently, it is ineffective as a category, since the tag only refers to itself at which point it is ignored. The strength (and weakness) of bottom-up architecture is that it is flexible and dynamic. Categories are fluid and can change based on the information in the system and the frequency of tag use.

Take a moment to scroll all the way down all of the items on my sidebar (to the right) and take a look at my tag cloud. In it, you’ll see the most frequent tags I’ve used on the site (the ones in larger type have been used more often). It’s a big list, but it is not, by far, all of the tags I’ve used, and it’s missing anything that I’ve only used once, you’ll see some one-timers listed at the bottom of this post.

Twitter hash tags have evolved from this bottom-up hierarchy of tagging. They are generally used to categorize your Twitter post on the off-chance that someone wants to find that particular topic again. As an example, I have a column on my Tweetdeck that is every post that happens to mention ncbeer (minus the hash tag, because it’s not strictly necessary). Another craft-beer related tag that you might be familiar with is #gents. There are a fair amount of random items that pop up under #gents, but for the most part, they refer to the The Fellowship of Gentlemanly Gentlemen.

There are two main reasons to use hash tags on Twitter.

1) You are categorizing your tweet. Your tweet has to do with #ncbeer or is meant to reach all of the #gents or is in reference to an event (Craft Brewers Conference: Chicago), a city that you’re in (examples: #avl is the city tag for Asheville, NC, #rva is the city tag for Richmond, Virginia), etc. In all of these cases, the hash tag is being used to categorize your tweet for a larger audience than is necessarily following you. In some ways, it’s like voluntarily joining a Twitter list.

2) You are using the hash tag for comedy, sarcasm, irony or some other form of commentary. The best example of a commentary might be the ubiquitous hash tag #justsayin or maybe #andscene (though at the time of writing the latter is pretty damn lame). Another example might be the #beerfilms hash tag that craft beer Twitterers has so much fun with a while back.

The following are silly uses of hashtags:

1) Hash tags that reference your Twitter handle.

Why? Because your twitter handle is already there. You’re already getting those tweets. The hash tag is doing nothing but taking up space and reducing the amount of space for your actual message. The best example I have of this (sorry for calling you out, Lee, it’s just the example that jumps to mind) is #tellhoptopia.

You see, almost every tweet that the hashtag #tellhoptopia is referenced in is directed at @Hoptopia or is a Re-Tweet of @Hoptopia’s original #tellhoptopia tweet. The hash tag, in this case, is entirely useless. If you want to tell @Hoptopia something, your best bet is to just tell @Hoptopia and leave the hash tag out of it because it’s not actually adding any value to the tweet or getting the information to @Hoptopia any differently.

2) Hash tags that are very broad dictionary words.

The hash tag #beer comes to mind. It’s kind of a silly hash tag. For one thing, #beer is used by a shit-ton of people for completely random reasons (and inconsistently), so it doesn’t really work as a reference marker for anything, but you can also just search for beer, and get a lot more (just as random) results.

3) Hash tags that aren’t common.

This is a little unfair of me to say. At some point, each hash tag was used for the first time. Still, just throwing random hash tags on the end of your Twitter posts is a great way to increase clutter and obscure your message. If the hash tags you use are not referring to something that is going to be repeated (ie – if the only tweet that a search for that hash tag will come up with is your own) and the hash tag itself isn’t compelling enough to be adopted by others (and thus create a new search stream), you’re just wasting time and characters while making your tweet that much harder to read quickly.

In summary, I’d say think about it this way:

Hash tags are category markings used to make searches more efficient.

Use them to categorize conferences, geographical locations, groups of people, etc.

Use them for comedy or commentary.

Otherwise, you’re just wasting the most finite resource you have on Twitter: any single one of your 140 characters.

Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 May 2010 @ 07:26 AM



Responses to this post » (9 Total)

  1. Nate says:

    Informative post Eric. I got on twitter late in the game, and i was confused by hashtags. My education came through the #beerfilms hash tag, which you actually explained to me.

    For the most part, hash tags aside, twitter is something I can only take in small doses, as its full of so much jibberish, highschool-esque “cool table,” and ego stroking.

    Don’t get me wrong…it is useful and I enjoy some of the interaction, but it seems like a cool experiment whose time is coming.

  2. Katherine says:

    Wow! Twitter should sponsor this post…thanks for sharing!

  3. Jason says:

    I agree with that you are saying, but I like the #tellhoptopia hashtag. It easily allows me to see all of the replies when Lee poses a question that I might be interested in, or just trying to throw time away. Otherwise I wouldn’t see many of the responses (I don’t follow everyone that would respond)

    • erik says:

      Jason – great point.

      However, I should point out that since 99% of the responses to #tellhoptopia actually go to @Hoptopia, all you really have to do is search for hoptopia to see all of the responses.

      If responses weren’t directed back at Lee – if there were a more global discussion on the topic that weren’t directed at @Hoptopia – then a hash tag would make a lot of sense.

      I don’t really want to bash the #tellhoptopia tag/creator. It was a familiar example, that’s all. They come up all the time. I’m happy to point them out when they do, but it’ll make me look like even more of a douchebag than I look, now.

  4. Jim says:

    I generally deplore hash tags, especially the ubiquitous #justsayin. It makes me nuts, as I see someone who’s all smarmy and full of themselves saying it.

    However, I think I love the #yomomma hash tags, as it serves a wonderful purpose and encourages creativity. But generally speaking, hash tags are for hipster poseurs. #justsayin.

  5. Seabass says:

    Nicely worded and digestible. I am still of that sort of social media participant that looks at the tweets, then needs to reminds him/herself that this is indeed a message and not the calculator function. A great reference piece worthy to be added to this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter entry.

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