HASHTAGS: A USER'S MANUAL
by Federica Fugazzotto
On the origins of hashtags and the best way to prevent #epicfails
Some people adore hashtags and use them even on their shopping lists, others can’t literally stand them. Leaving personal opinions aside, what can’t be denied is that they’ve become a part of contemporary communication. But do you know how, and when, they were used for the first time? And is it really so easy to use them? Let’s try to make a point.
Starting from the beginning, you may not know that we owe the use of hashtags to one of the pioneers of Twitter, Chris Messina, who back in August 2007 proposed to use the # symbol – followed by some keywords – to create a sort of Whisper Circle to help users identify special topics they were interested in, among the countless number of tweets. Maybe, if he had ever imagined the future success of his proposal, he would have chosen a different name.
Twitter’s top management, though, did not show particular interest in his idea and Messina decided to let it go without even patenting it. Hashtags fell then into oblivion until October 2007 when Nate Ritter, a Twitter user, brought them back to life during a sequence of fires that hit San Diego: he started using #sandiegofire while posting live updates on the situation. This hashtag had great success among Twitter users and the symbol # soon turned to be very popular.
This new form of communication, after its debut on Twitter, gained ground also on Instagram, Facebook, Google + and other social medias and, after ten years, it is still live and lively; by now, hashtags are popular like emoji and emoticons. In fact – being able to summarize a concept with just a few letters or symbols –smiling little faces and hashtags are great for fast communications.
But is communication through hashtags really so successful? Back to 2013 Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake performed a sparring hashtag match, making fun of the tendency to overuse them and highligthing the weakness of a communication based on this medium.
So, in the end: should we use them or not? What’s the netiquette on this issue? Very simply, the answer is: in medio stat virtus. Hasthags can be an effective mean to spread messages and, in some cases – such as social campaigns of corporations and brands – taking them out would probably reveal to be self-defeating. It’s important, though, use them properly: first of all be careful not to exceed using too many. The best would be to choose a few of them, but the right ones. It’s a matter of commons sense: keywords should be just a few and easily understandable, not too generical (which would make your post identical to many others) or too specific (that only few people would see or understand). Short hashtags are also to be preferred to long ones.
And if, while writing a post, you think you’re going a bit too far, just take a minute off and watch this video:
Federica Fugazzotto - Editorial translator from English into Italian and full-time nerd. She loves stories more than anything else on Earth but does not mind a glass of good red wine.
"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." Nelson Mandela