Friday, 17 May 2013

Hashtag This

We were lining up for a flu shot at work, when Coworker asked me, in all sincerity, "What is a hashtag?"
"It's the little hash-key in front of a word," I said.
"Hashtag YOLO," said another Coworker. "I heard someone got a flu shot and their arm fell off."
"I know that," said the first, "but why do people use hashtags? What do they do?"
I only had time to say "Hashtags are good for jokes and events mainly," before it was my turn for the flu jab. (My arm didn't fall off, and you should go get immunised too.)

I've been using hashtags for so long that they're as second nature to me as apostrophes. Most regular readers can either skip this post or forward it to your mum, but here's a quick hashtag 101 for Coworker and their ilk who don't know about the Wikipedia.

(Most of the examples in this post are from people I follow, but not all are. As always, retweets are not endorsements!)

Hash Key

A hashtag looks like this: #hashtag. That's simple. But why does it exist at all?

For Searching

Twitter allows you to search all tweets. It's a really powerful tool, but it's off the main page, out of your stream.

When you tag a post, it makes it easier for users to sort tweets, just by clicking on the tag. This makes it easier to follow events and conversations.


Because you can pull up all the Tweets as they occur, it's great for following breaking news and political debates.

Generally, you don't use Twitter like Google. If you were planning a trip, you might be looking up things like "meals in Auckland," and "accommodation in Auckland," when you were still at home. This works well because the information you're looking for is relatively static and unchanging. But Googling [event unfolding right now] kind of doesn't work. You can generally get more information from Twitter. (Yeah, it's not necessarily accurate, but nothing is in the first hour of a breaking news story.)


Users who don't follow one another can have conversations by following an agreed-on tag. For example, I see #WineParty come up in my feed . (It also makes it easier for people to mute these tweets.)


A hashtag joke is one that only works with a hashtag.
"Star Border Dispute" by itself doesn't make any damn sense. But the hashtag explains the joke, and lets you find more on a similar theme:

Emphasis and Expansion

Hashtags can expand on a point in a shorter space of time - compare the character length of #every15minutes vs "Outer Link buses are due every 15 minutes off peak".
Here's an example of emphasis. FML stands for Fuck My Life - yeah, you're having a bad day, but apparently your whole life sucks too.

How are Hashtags Picked?

There are two ways: user-generated, and top-down.

Jokes are user-generated tags that spread because they're funny. News tags can often be user generated too. For example, #eqnz is the tag used to follow news on the Christchurch earthquakes; when there was a wee earthquake in Auckland, the tag #eqakl was used universally because it made sense, is nice and short and is instantly recognisable to everyone who followed #eqnz.

Top-down hashtags are created for events, or by companies. For example, if you attend a conference, it will probably have an official hashtag (or someone will make it one).
The hashtag for my birthday was #RayRayBDay. You probably have opinions about what this says about me.

The Ad Tag

Here's one you won't see much: the ASA guidelines require an #ad hashtag to be included in paid-for tweets. So, if I pay an All Black a hundred dollars to tweet a link to my blog, I could be liable if #ad wasn't included.

The key here is money has to change hands - if an All Black just tweeted about how this blog is totally rad, that's a personal endorsement and doesn't need an #ad.


#Ttrtpt is short for "This Tweet Refers to Previous Tweet."

I've also seen it referred to as "elephant noise". No, really. If it's not referring to a prior tweet, it is used in a way similar to lol.

What is a Good Hashtag?

It's hard to say what's a perfect tag, but they generally share some characteristics:
  • Short. Twitter only gives you 140 characters to play with, so the shorter the better.
  • Recognisable. For example, #eqnz works, because it refers to an earthquake, in New Zealand.
  • Easy to spell. It's annoying when one character is off in some tweets: it messes up the feed.
  • In camel case. That's when you WriteStuffLikeThis.

When should I use a hashtag?

Generally, if you're not sure, then don't. Use them when following an event or an unfolding news story, but try and keep things relevant! Remember you're edging your way into a conversation: contribute something to that conversation, don't clog the feed.

Don't #Tag #Every #Damn #Word. Try and keep it to one, or at the most two, tags per tweet. Hashtags also don't belong on Facebook.

It's generally considered poor form to say "hashtag" in conversation. You could say, "There is an amusing hashtag joke about movies," but if you say "hashtag YOLO," people will role their eyes at you.

That's my understanding of how hashtags work, as of this minute. They'll continue to evolve, and one day we'll all look back on this and laugh.


  1. A while ago I wrote a solo piano piece called #llamadrama. I specify that when spoken aloud, it's to be pronounced "hashtag llama drama".

  2. Surprised it didn't automatically hyperlink that URL...