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For a platform that limits you to 140 characters, why waste the space?
If you’re planning to hire a new employee for your social media marketing team and wondering whether a particular applicant is right for the job, you may want to start by taking a look at her Twitter profile. If she uses the #marketing hashtag in her bio or if most her tweets contain a hashtag for #every other #word, then the choice is simple: Don’t hire her.
What I just said is blasphemy in certain marketing circles. In this alternate universe, hashtags are an opportunity for discovery. If you employ them, adding them to topic-based words like #econ or #education, then those interested in economics or education are more likely to see your tweet when they search for those hashtags.
This pro-hashtag view is held within Twitter itself. When I was an editor at a major national magazine we were visited by a Twitter liaison who chastised us for not using hashtags more frequently. Whenever we write a story about drones, he argued, then we should use the #drones hashtag. He backed up his argument by citing internal statistics showing that tweets with hashtags received, on average, more engagement than tweets without them.
But this is a classic correlation versus causation scenario. Anyone who has spent any time on Twitter knows that it’s populated with millions of bots, spam accounts, and RSS feeds. The use of a hashtag usually means that the tweet was written and sent by a human, so is therefore more likely to be retweeted than a tweet sent by a bot or a spam account.
In all likelihood, most hashtags deployed on any given day are tweeted out much more often than they’re actually searched for, meaning that there are many more people including the #econ hashtag than there are people going to Twitter search and plugging #econ into the field.
What I’m saying is pretty well accepted among the most elite Twitter users. Look at the Twitter accounts that receive the most engagement, whether it’s Justin Bieber or the New York Times, and you’ll see they only use hashtags sparingly. This is partly because hashtags are ugly and make a tweet difficult to read. As Daniel Victor put it back when he was a social media editor at the New York Times:
I believe hashtags are aesthetically damaging. I believe a tweet free of hashtags is more pleasing to the eye, more easily consumed, and thus more likely to be retweeted (which is a proven way of growing your audience). I believe for every person who stumbles upon your tweet via hashtag, you’re likely turning off many more who are put off by hashtag overuse.
But even if you manage to get users to include your brand’s name as a hashtag, something many marketers would consider a crown achievement, the effect is likely to be minimum. The marketing software company Hubspot looked at three instances where the hashtag #hubspot became a trending topic, and two out of the three instances produced no noticeable spike in following.
That’s not to say all hashtags are useless. In fact, when deployed strategically, hashtags can perform extremely well at increasing visibility, driving engagement, or providing context for your followers. Here are a few examples:
Some of the best uses of hashtags are when they’re included ironically or to provide subtext. At its most basic, this could be as simple as a #sarcasm hashtag. No, nobody is searching for that hashtag, but it contextualizes the tweet. A linguist at NYU recently studied 1,633 hashtags and found that female Twitter users were much more likely to use these “expressive” hashtags.
Beyond simple subtext hashtags, some of the most frequent trending hashtags are of the humorous “scenario” variety. For these tweets, the hashtag presents a scenario, like, for instance, the mashup of two movie titles, and users try to present the funniest version. As I write this, the #RejectedUniversityClasses hashtag is trending. Scroll through them and you’ll find plenty of gems like this one:
Screengrab via Twitter
One of the few instances in which users will actually turn to Twitter search to follow hashtags is when something is happening in real time and they want to find people who are responding to that live event. This includes actual current events like the Ferguson protests or the Baltimore riots as well as pop culture events like the Mad Men finale or the Super Bowl.
One of the most famous examples of this was the #StandWithWendy hashtag, which quickly reached trending status while Texas representative Wendy Davis filibustered a Texas bill that placed harsh restrictions on abortion. Its quick ascendancy led to the live video feed of her filibuster receiving hundreds of thousands of viewers, most of whom discovered it as a direct result of the hashtag.
Occasionally activists will band together in an attempt to raise awareness of an issue by employing a hashtag. My favorite example of this was #TakeMyMoneyHBO, a campaign launched by a software developer who wanted HBO to release a standalone app that didn’t require a cable subscription. It quickly gained traction and led to thousands of Twitter users tweeting out the exact amount they’d be willing to pay each month for such an app.
As I wrote previously, it “allowed HBO executives to witness, in real time, how much money they were leaving on the table by continuing to require an expensive cable subscription as a prerequisite for HBO.”
I’m sure my views here are likely to be rejected by some who still worship at the altar of the hashtag. These hashtag devotees will point to some anecdotal instance where a hashtagged tweet of theirs generated increased following and engagement.
But this doesn’t change the fact that hashtags are ugly and, for the overwhelming majority of them, unlikely to increase the audience size for your tweet. And for a platform that limits you to 140 characters, why waste a single, precious character for something that produces so little value?
Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. This article was originally published on his website. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Email him at [email protected]
Illustration by Max Fleishman
Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. He's a former associate editor for PBS’ MediaShift and assistant managing editor at US News & World Report. His bylines have also appeared in the Atlantic, New York Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, and others.