Hashtags work. At least on Twitter. People sacrifice precious characters to tag their tweets.
Why they work? They are emergent*. Nobody owns them. And they have the fate they deserve.
A tagged micro-post becomes immediately a member of the set of all micro-posts having this tag. The main function is to direct the tweets to some attenuator, applied by the users in form of a search, filter or some way of fixing a topic.
Some hashtags live shortly but can enjoy becoming micro-memes and the luckiest – trending topics. Some of these transient hashtags are very useful for live-reporting of events.
Others live longer serving as social bookmark or creation/replication of virtual communities. These two roles are subject of the article “We Know What @You #Tag: Does the Dual Role Affect Hashtag Adoption?”. The authors describe the second role as:
a hashtag defines virtual community of users with the same background, the same interest, or involved in the same conversation or task. A user joins such a community by simply including that hashtag in her own tweets.
Hashtags work and I do use them a lot when posting, reading, organising. But sometimes they don’t serve well the objective of a tweet. For example, recently I’ve read a very good article by Barry Clemson in the Systems Thinking World Journal. I immediately wanted to share it in Twitter and when doing that, of course, hashtag it. The most natural hashtag to put was #systemsthinking. But then I thought, what would be the benefit to those that follow this hashtag. Of course they’d learn new things, most of them reinforcing their beliefs. And that’s a normal effect of hashtags coming from their role to gather “virtual communities of users with the same interest”. But is that always a good thing? It’s natural to follow those that we agree with, and we are followed back by them and others like-minded. When we read a tweet that we agree with, it reinforces our views often by adding new testimonial or a new piece of knowledge that nicely fits in. Then we re-tweet or favour it and by doing so we support the author of the micro-post, reinforce their beliefs and deafen their doubts. Along with some learning and the satisfied instinct of belonging, this birds-of-a-feather effect could in fact reduce our opportunity to challenge our assumptions, to destroy our fallacies and to decrease the chance of really innovative insights and discoveries. The technologically increased potential of serendipity is reduced by our tribal behaviour.
Back to the choice of hashtag for the shared link to that particular article, what I really wanted was to give it a better chance to reach people who’s thinking is part of the described in the article problems. And in that particular case the chance of reading was increased by the almost jargon-free style and simple metaphors. If the worst things is not to tag it, the better would be to put a tribal tag and counting on the chance that by RTs it will be amplified and have statistically better chance of reaching some small part of the “actual” target audience. The third and probably the best option would be if I spend time to find out what are the trending hashtags of that target audience and use exactly those hashtags that would be inadequate for the tweet but adequate for the tweet’s objective. That seems to be indeed the right thing to do but the one with the smallest chance of being done as it would require time and effort, while one of the things I mostly appreciate in Twitter is that it doesn’t cost you much of those for the value it brings.
* The power of Twitter comes also – in my opinion mainly – from the fact that many of the features are not envisaged and built, they just emerged, stabilised and then capabilities and apps appeared to utilise them. Not only the hashtag, but also the reply/mention was something that emerged.