Sure enough, when I talk to a journalist who has just started on Twitter, inevitably the question will come up: What’s the tic tac toe thing all about?
Welcome to the hashtag. The hashtag is simply adding a keyword with the pound sign or hash (#), which does look a bit like a tic-tac-toe board, to a tweet. It’s an innovation that evolved organically to help people communicate better on Twitter.
The hashtag has two main purposes:
1. To help sort and organize content.
2. To help people communicate emotion or nuance in their tweets.
The idea here is that you put a hashtag on a tweet that shows the topic of the tweet. For example, in the rash of tweets about the riots in Egypt, people would use #Egypt in their tweets about that issue.
Using the hashtag makes aggregation of tweets about that topic easier. For example, even today — weeks after the conflict broke — if you throw #Egypt into a Google search, you will get real-time tweets about the issue where people used this hashtag.
Journalists, look for hashtags and use them in your own tweets. Here is how:
Searching for hashtags
Searching for hashtags is useful for journalists to help find what many people are tweeting about an issue, not just those whom you follow on Twitter. It’s a good way to follow the news through the crowd-sourced tweets of the masses. It helps sort through the barrage of information on Twitter if you are just looking to read about one topic.
Hashtags also offer a clue to what is popular at the moment, which might prompt your own reporting or coverage. If you keep seeing a hashtag for a certain topic, odds are that’s a talk topic as we say in the business.
You can search for hashtags through Google as I did above. You also type the keyword with hashtag into a Twitter search to find all the tweets on that topic, as I have done here for #CharlieSheen. It is important to note that you can type a keyword without a hashtag into a Twitter search, but you will end up with different results, as I do here for Charlie Sheen.
The beauty of searching by hashtag is you get the tweets in which someone purposely added a hashtag, so using this methods focuses your search.
Searching for hashtags is particularly useful for following a live event, like a ball game, public meeting, trial or a conference. Find the hashtag, plunk it into Google or Twitter search and read along.
I’ve started “watching” Syracuse University basketball games this way when I can’t make the game, and it’s great. I can read what the journalists covering the game are tweeting but also what random fans are saying, as well as fans for the other team. This really adds to the whole experience because it’s like having your own, personalized blow-by-blow announcers.
I also have followed hashtags to keep up on what’s going on at a conference I was not able to attend. It’s a useful way to find out the highlights through the lens of conference participants.
How to find the hashtags
It is important to make sure you are searching for the hashtag that most people are using for topic. Sometimes, it becomes clear quickly. When I was watching Syracuse University in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee stadium, I could tell pretty quickly that #pinstripe was the hashtag of choice.
But sometimes finding out what hashtag is being used most for a particular topic can get confusing. What’s the trend can be helpful tool, as it lists top hashtags of the moment. Hashtags.org is also useful. You can type in what you think might be the hashtag and see what results you get or try several variations (#pinstripe, #pinstripebowl, etc.). Hashtags.org provides stats on how much the hashtag you typed in has been used recently as well as tweets that contain it. Mashable offers additional tips on using and searching for hashtags.
Using hashtags in your own tweets
For journalists, using hashtags in your own tweets offers many advantages. First, it helps your tweets on a particular topic get aggregated along with other tweets on that topic. For example, back to my Pinstripe Bowl example, if you’re covering the Syracuse Orange versus the Kansas Wildcats for the Syracuse newspaper, obviously you want Syracuse fans to read your tweets. They likely already follow you on Twitter. But you also wouldn’t mind if Kansas fans read your tweets that may contain links to your stories because it expands your reach and readership. Obviously, Kansas fans are unlikely to be following you already on Twitter.
So plunking in #pinstripe into your tweets gets you read by a wider audience than if you don’t.
Using a Twitter hashtag when covering a live event is particularly useful, especially if you are also tweeting other things at the same time. That way people can keep track of what interests them.
Using hashtags to communicate nuance
Another use of the hashtags is to add some personality or emotion to tweets. This evolved, I think, because computer-mediated communication in general can lack the richness of face-to-face communication. I can’t smile or wink or nod or use my body language to show I’m being sarcastic or I’m kidding in a tweet.
Emoticons, the smiley or frowny faces people put in a computer-mediated messages, are an attempt to circumvent this problem. The hashtag is, too.
People have started added commentary to their tweets using the hashtag to show irony or humor or just add some emotion. In a post that every Twitter user should read, Jessica Hische explains this use of the hashtag well.
So why does a journalist need to use hashtags to add some personality to tweets? First, personality on Twitter is a good thing. Twitter is a conversation; it’s not about shouting “me, me, me.” It’s about engaging people virtually, and people who are interesting and funny are more likeable than those who lack these qualities.
Another reason journalists should use the hashtag to add emotion or personality is that it marks you as a Twitter native. No one wants to be the nerdy guy running behind trying to catch up. Journalists need to be leading, not following on social media. One way to do that is to learn to use Twitter well and do so.
Nothing marks you as a newbie quicker than misunderstanding Twitter basics. Twitter, I find, is a pretty forgiving community. So don’t sweat a mistake or two. But for journalism to re-invent itself as it really needs to, it need to radically change not just make minor adjustments, as Mathew Ingram points out in this very important post. “Getting” how to use social media is part of that radical change.
So don’t just dip your toe into the water, leap in. #andhavefundoingit