Hashtag 101

For some reason, the hot topic in my Direct Message column in TweetDeck so far this week is the hashtag. Rather than answer the same question a few dozen times, I thought I’d put the basics here, along with some helpful links.

What is a hashtag?

Hashtags started with a web site located at Hashtags.org. They are a simple, shorthand way of tagging a tweet with a common keyword to find it later on a search page. Originally, you could only see all of the people using your hashtag by visiting the Hashtags website. That didn’t last long! Hashtags were soon integrated into Summize, and later into Search.Twitter after it absorbed Summize as well. I am told my many that the Hashtags web site is also still functioning, though I tend to only see 404 errors when I visit it.

Who can use a hashtag?

Anyone can use a hashtag. Twitter users generate their own hashtags, putting them at the end of a tweet to track a topic easily. It’s helpful to take a quick glance at your desired hashtag on Search.Twitter before choosing it, as you never know how many other people may have come up with the same brilliant idea. For example, one of the more popular hashtags is #wishlist, used for everything from asking for software features to actual presents – this reduces it’s usefulness somewhat as the search page for it shows such a wide variety of disjointed information.

How do you get a hashtag started?

This is a little more tricky. One of the more useful uses for a hashtag is to track live tweets from a conference or event. Often several large egos or a simple case of impatience in waiting for the “official” hashtag may get in the way, causing multiple hashtags. In most cases hashtags are very DIY, but in the case of events and conferences it is best to hold your hat a while and let the conference planner or the MC for the day choose the hashtag. That avoids confusion for people not in attendance trying to follow along.

If you are not live tweeting a conference, but instead just want to track a topic, starting as hashtag is easy. Just take a quick glance at Search.Twitter to see who may be using it, modify it accordingly, then start putting it at the end of posts you make relevant to that topic. I did that this weekend when I was having a little fun playing with Blip.fm and cover songs by using #coversonglove, and several people picked up the hashtag and played along with me.

What are some benefits to using hashtags?

The biggest benefit to the hashtag is keeping track of a topic in real time. Hashtags helped Andy Carvin spearhead hurricane relief for the victims of Gustav, then Ike last year in tandem with Ning and Twitter, getting people the help they needed quickly. Whether you need to track a national initiative or just who is talking about your breakfast meeting (we used #SMBNH to track our breakfast meeting last week), a hashtag is a quick and simple way to do that.

Another benefit is seeing a topic trend in real time. Today I watched #skittles trending to number one and staying there for quite some time as the people on Twitter noticed, then commented on, Skittles jarring new home page. It’s an excellent way to keep your finger on the pulse of something that has caught the internet’s attention, however briefly.

Can you use hashtags on other sites?

Yes, you can use them on other sites then search for them on Google or within the site in question, like Flickr, the same way you would search for them on Search.Twitter. The results are not quite as focused and dramatic, but it is an effective way to tag blog posts, photos and videos related to an event or topic.

Update 3/5: Allow me to call your attention to Alex Howard’s post on IT Knowledge Exchange today (3/5) on using hashtags for #compliance information