It’s been a while since we made use of the Soapbox, but a lot of very badly used hashtags in our Twitter stream this week has inspired us to get it out of storage.

Most hashtags used on Twitter are pointless

So here’s the niggle: pollution of Twitter by stupid, unhelpful hashtag usage on a grand scale. It really has got to the point now where there are far more uses of hashtags which just general visual noise, than there are for any practical purpose.

Let’s start by considering how hashtags are generally explained to new Twitter users. Twitter’s own help page provides this definition:

hashtag definitionDoes this seem a fair enough description to you? Well…it almost works. Except when it doesn’t, which is most of the time.

Hashtags for “keywords or topics”

Think about it. If you’re using a “keyword or topic” in a Tweet, the word in question would typically be something that’s perfectly standard and very likely to be predictable by any Twitter user. For someone looking for tweets about Google Adwords, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Adwords” is your likely keyword.

So if you’re getting involved in a conversation about Adwords, what exactly does adding a hashtag in front every time you type #adwords, actually achieve? Honestly, nothing. Absolutely zip. You’re short cutting the search process very slightly for anyone who sees your outbound tweet, because they can click directly on the word to search for it. To my mind, that’s just not enough justification for #adding a #load of #visual #noise to your tweet.  It’s going to take anyone thinking “hmm, I’d like to see who else is saying what about Adwords” less than a second to just type “Adwords” into the Search box.

Twitter’s internal search algorithm doesn’t distinguish between a word with or without a hashtag when returning results (see below) and neither does it distinguish when reporting Trending Topics, so neither of these are a good excuse:

twitter hashtag search illustration

In other words, Twitter’s definition leads to users stuffing their tweets full of hashtags which are just shortcuts to obvious searches. Which is ugly, and a really poor use of the hashtag concept.

Here’s where the magic happens

Because here’s the thing: used properly, hashtags are fantastic. They have the power to bring people together who’d otherwise not have had a hope of finding one another, and enable real-time discussion in a way which doesn’t exist anywhere outside of Twitter.

Here are a couple of totally valid uses of hashtags, where their presence actually adds something to the tweet.

Firstly, to bring people together on a topic, often time-sensitive, where it’s not obvious what the appropriate search term should be.

A great example of this is the BBC topical comedy show Have I Got News For You. For years now, the hashtag #HIGNFY has been shown at the end of the opening credits, to enable a real-time discussion (OK, massive snark about the presenter’s tie, but still).

Without the hashtag being “declared” in that way, the likelihood of the whole audience arriving at it is miniscule;  people could be using all kinds of combinations of “haveigotnews”which means many who want to be involved in the conversation may end up missing one another.

The hashtag #PMQS for Prime Minister’s Question Time is another – again, people want to quickly see what’s being said on a transient topic, without having to set up multiple searches for all the ways in which it might be referred to.

Similarly with conferences or events; having an agreed hashtag lets attendees find one another and converse with each other or speakers, and those not attending keep up with what’s being said.

Second good use:  to indicate the topic of something where it might otherwise be unclear from the tweet, or discovered by a standard search (because the keyword’s not in the tweet). Going back to the Adwords example; “my company is very good at #Adwords” is a poor use of the hashtag, but “Here’s a fascinating guide to the evolution of internet advertising over the years [link] #Adwords” is helpful.

A final bonus good use: indicating to your followers when you’re taking part in a Twitter meme game – to save them the time spent wondering if you’ve lost your mind. You know the ones we mean – #updatedbooks  (“Bridget Jones’ Blog”) and so on.

Your turn – send this to the hashtag polluters in your timeline if you dare. And if there are any clever uses that we’ve missed, comment them up!