Social Media: What’s a #hashtag? #confusion #curiosity #WhyShouldICare
Note that this newsletter’s topic relates to using social media, including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, and many more. Whether social media plays a key role in marketing your business, or you find it fun to use to connect with friends or family in your real-life or online communities, or you think it’s a complete waste of time, this topic may help you understand one aspect of it a little better.
People post things on social media for a variety of reasons. Each platform permits its own mix of text, pictures, audio clips, videos, etc. to be posted.
On the one hand, any given site has a rich variety of content online you can explore. On the other hand, the sheer volume of material posted every day is enormous, and it’s often presented in a simple list with the newest posts first. There aren’t enough hours in a lifetime to read through it all, nor is it officially organized into carefully-chosen categories.
Similarly, if you’re inclined to post your own content, it can be unlikely that many people (beyond your circle of friends or colleagues) will notice it among the all the other content being uploaded every day.
Why not just use Google?
You can certainly use Google to search for any topic that interests you, especially if you use the second form below to search for a topic on a specific website:
- To search for a topic on any website, google: red sox
- To search for a topic on a specific website, google: red sox site:twitter.com
However, social media sites offer another way to search their content that’s likely to give you results that are different from Google, which may or may not be better, depending on your needs.
Hashtags: Another approach to searching posts on social media, and to making your own posts more visible
You’ve probably seen those odd “#xyz” bits of text in social media posts, which look like commentary or adjectives strangely inserted for no obvious reason, like the two below from Twitter. I’ve made the hashtags bold so you can spot them more easily:
Marlo Thomas @MarloThomas Aug 17, 2022
“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” -- Helen Keller #QuoteOfTheDay
Mashed @MashedHQ Jan 27, 2023
If this #cheesecake were being served, we might skip dinner and go right for dessert. #foodie #foodlover #dessert [accompanied by a photo of a “big daddy” cheesecake]
Some people put their hashtags at the end of their posts, some integrate them into the body, and many do both. Some people only use one or two per post, others use many.
What is a hashtag?
Hashtags are category names that people use to “tag” each of their social media posts simply by including one or more “#xyz” keywords in the text of their posts.
Using hashtags in a social media post in effect puts that post into one or more conceptual categories, acting as a kind of cross-reference to those topics.
For example, that cheesecake post above has four hashtags, which puts it into each of those four categories, and that user could have easily added many more.
Anyone can just make one up at any time. The ones that are the most popular (“trending”) are constantly changing.
They are also an example of metadata, i.e., data that describes other data.
In other words, hashtags are improvised, unofficial, disorganized, and inconsistent.
Anatomy of a hashtag
The term “hashtag” comes from its two parts: a hashmark (or pound sign) immediately followed by a tag (a word or phrase), with no spaces within. Two or more hashtags in a row must be separated by spaces. They can be in any order.
The tag portion can consist of any combination of letters, digits, and underscores (_). There does not appear to be an official maximum length.
They’re case-insensitive. #summerolympics and #SummerOlympics are the same for search purposes, but choosing to embed capital letters can make it easier to read and understand the tag’s intended meaning.
Hashtag pros and cons
Hashtags are never required, but searching with them can improve your ability to find other people’s social media posts, and using them in your posts can boost their visibility. This happens in a number of ways:
- Using hashtags makes a post more easily found by other people who are searching for posts with similar themes.
- Hashtags can also help add some context to a post, in theory reducing the need to explain in detail what the post is about.
- Not only can hashtags express a given topic (#coffee, #clouds, #MeToo, etc.), they can also convey a mood (#excited, #sad, etc.).
Hashtags also have some downsides:
- They can be obscure. For example, #TBT is used to tag weekly posts that fondly remember family or career memories on “Throwback Thursday.” #OTD tags posts that celebrate events, birthdays, etc. that occurred “On This Day” in history.
- They can be extremely specific and narrow, like #WhoShotJR.
- They can be extremely general, e.g., #computer or #food or #shopping.
- Many hashtags have variations. A post may carry many similar hashtags in order to be more visible to people searching for those similar topics, e.g., #mac #macintosh #imac #macbook #macbookair #macbookpro #maclaptop, etc.
- Hashtags are not hierarchical. For example, while they’re related in concept, #Olympics, #SummerOlympics, and #OlympicGames1980 are all independent hashtags.
- Most confusing of all, there is no central list. See below for my advice on how to find useful existing ones instead of guessing or creating new ones.
Misspellings are common, e.g., #Addition vs. Addiction, #GameofThornes instead of #GameofThrones, #IndependanceDay vs. #IndependenceDay, #Satan vs. #Santa, etc.
How to identify current or popular hashtags
There are a number of ways to find existing hashtags, with only a little guesswork, including:
Just start typing: When you’re on a social media website, whether you’re using the Search box or writing a new post, you can often get a list of suggested hashtags simply by typing a pound sign (#) followed by one or more letters, numbers or underscores (_). The more you type, the more specific the suggestions will become. For example, type “#foot” and you might get “#football” and “#footwear” among the suggestions. Add the letter “b” and you might get a narrower list of suggested hashtags starting with “#football.”
Note the hashtags in existing posts on similar topics. Start by searching using keywords (not hashtags) to find posts on your topic, then consider using those posts’ hashtags, both in further searches and in your own posts. This is how hashtags become popular. And if you click or tap on one of the hashtags in a existing post, that will probably start a search for other posts that use that hashtag.
Use Google directly: Search for the name of the topic you’re interested in plus the word “hashtag,” e.g. google: white chocolate hashtag
Use Google indirectly: Search for advice on choosing useful or popular hashtags, e.g., google: how do I find useful hashtags
Research & advice: There are many websites with lots of information on current and popular hashtags. Some are free, but because marketing products and services on social media is big business, many charge a fee for access to their research.
Example hashtag searches
Typos and misspellings online and in real life are so common that there are several hashtags like #misspell that people use to point them out. If you were to search for that hashtag on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, here are the resulting links you would get:
“%23” is the ASCII code in hexadecimal (base 16) for the pound sign (#) character.
Where to go from here
For any of the searches below, to focus on a particular social media platform simply add its name (e.g., twitter) to the search keywords.
- google: what’s a hashtag
- google: how to choose a hashtag
- google: trending hashtags
- google: how to use a hashtag
- google: how to search with a hashtag
- google: how to find useful hashtags
- Where TOPIC is the name of the topic you’re interested in, search for existing hashtags about it using google: TOPIC hashtag