Hashtags come to Facebook: A guide for novices

Even the word “hashtag” causes some people’s skin to crawl. They picture 12-year old’s on twitter, but don’t realize the actual usefulness of the way the idea works. Let’s spend a few minutes and break it down into tiny bite-sized pieces.

What does it mean?

hashtagYou’re familiar with this symbol: #, right? In America we call it the “pound” sign, but most of the rest of the world calls it the “hash” sign. It’s even on your telephone. If you call a phone line outside of the North American continent, you’ll often hear “enter the extension, followed by the hash sign.”

The other part of the name is “tag”, which is method of assigning relevancy to a certain topic. When you file papers in a file cabinet, chances are you file them by some sort of system. Taxes are here, phone bills are there, receipts are there. You’re tagging things – or putting them together with other stuff of the same type. The same happens on the web. We “tag” certain things on websites, so people can find them. If you go to Google and click on “News” rather than “Web” for your search, you’re telling Google to show you things with the news tag, rather that just web pages. If you’re reading the news, you don’t just arbitrarily read every new article published on all topics do you? I personally couldn’t care less about Sports, so I never click on the sports label on new pages, but I often click on “politics” or “busiess” or “technology” and read all the related articles. These are tags… you’re just not used to calling them that. All the news in that section is “tagged” as related to the same content. You’d find it very annoying to open up the Sunday paper and have to read the entire paper to find a job listing wouldn’t you? That’s why they’re all tagged together under “classifieds.”

If you equate a category with word hashtag you’ll quickly come to understand how to use them to find what you want.

Why does everyone on the web use it so much?

A lot of the relevance of hashtags started with news and media agencies, later to be picked up by the public as a way of quickly associating a topic across the world. We live in a world now where people can disseminate information in mere seconds, rather than hours. Live, on the ground, reporting is instantaneous now – due to hashtags. Let’s use an example you can relate to.

A child named “Jane Doe” goes missing; snatched from her school somewhere here in America. The first reporter on the scene whips out his blackberry, attaches a photo of this girl, and creates the hashtag :#amberalert-janedoe” and hits send. BAM… immediately, other people will start using that same hashtag related to that girl’s disappearance. This used to be relegated only to twitter, but now with Facebook stepping up, hashtags could play an important part in this. We could have used this in the Boston bombing as a method of collecting tips for the FBI.

How? I don’t get how it works?

It works because hashtags are globally accepted across a particular network. For example, if I make a public post on Facebook that says “Help find this missing girl! #amberalert-janedoe”  – the last part of that message (the part behind the hash sign) will be clickable as a link. You can click on #amberalert-janedoe and immediately see every post made on Facebook across the entire world relating to that subject. Likewise, people searching (such as police and FBI) would see my post instantly if I responded on Facebook with “I saw a red-headed 9 yr old girl that looked like that girl in a truck headed west on highway 64 at 3:15 pm, just past the McDonalds in Charlotte, NC #amberalert-janedoe.”  No time wasted trying to find out who to call, waiting on hold-queues on the phone. I can make that news available to the entire world in ONE SECOND using a hashtag to let them know.

Similarly, other networks such as Instagram and Twitter have the feature also. It was actually invented for Twitter, but has gained such popularity that Facebook and Google are now adopting it as well. You can use hashtags on Twitter, but Facebook won’t search those. The same goes for the other way around. Hashtags are only searched across the platform you’re using.

In fact, if you go to Twitter.com right now and enter “amberalert” you will be shown every amber alert currently out there in America. If you want to notify the amber alerty system, they already have one setup on Twitter. Simply post your message and put the tag “amberalertfeed” in your message and it will automatically post to the national amber alert twitter page.

Understand that there is no global directory of hashtags you have to use, and that hashtag usage is up to each user to regulate. For example, today I used the hashtag #tommyjordan in one of my posts. If you go to Facebook and search #tommyjordan in the search box, you’ll see my post, whether you’re my friend or not. If someone wrote a news article about me, they could tag it “#facebookdad” since that’s something I seem to be known by whether I like it or not – and anyone could search that article using just the hashtag.  However, they could also tag it #tommyjordansucks and if you searched that you’d likely find a list of people that disagree with me. 

You could try searching #recipeforapplepie and find tens of thousands of recipes for ApplePie.

If you’re a big fan of NCIS, like I am, you could even search Facebook for #NCIS and see every post made by everyone related to that topic.

The downside is anyone CAN place hashtags on unrelated content. It’s bad manners, but it’s done all the time.

If they are used enough, hashtags take on a life of their own and become trendy. You’ve probably seen the jokes about pictures or stories where someone says “First World Problems” – meaning it’s such a minor inconvenience compared to real problems across the world. That term quickly became a hashtag. A search of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for #firstworldproblems will yield hundreds of thousands of results, and most of them will probably be humorous.

Show me an example

Well, since Facebook now supports hashtags, when I post this article I can keyword it to a few certain things using hashtags. I’ll probably use the following:
#8minutes
#facebookhashtags
#tommyjordan
That will basically mean anyone searching any of those three things will see my article – because I “tagged” it for them.

So, if you like an article I wrote on here and wanted to share it with other people, you could put “#8minutes” in your Facebook post and people would see other articles I’ve written.  Feel froggy? Try it out. I’m going to go post this now. By tonight, if you search #8minutes” on Facebook, I bet you’ll see more than one listing. Pretty neat how it can be used, huh?

Facebook Hashtags and Your Privacy

(Added because I forgot to address this in the original post)
Ok, so no, your privacy doesn’t go out the window when you use hashtags. Facebook privacy rules STILL APPLY to posts containing hashtags, though personally it seems dumb to me to make a friends-only post and then hashtag it. Hashtagging is basically a way to globally interact with an idea, so why you’d get up to the loudspeaker and then whisper to only a few seems strange to me.

But to be clear, if you were to make a post for Friends Only on Facebook, and use a hashtag, NO ONE OUTSIDE YOUR FRIENDS will see that post, even if they search for that hashtag. So, let’s use the amberalert concept. You make a post about the Amber Alert tag, but restrict it to friends only – no one but your friends can see it.

I’d expect to see hashtags used more agressively in public posts, by public personalities, and businesses. After all, now my wife can be #bearcreekvet all over the place. Ever notice that TV shows always have a hashtag at the bottom of the screen now? Criminal Minds is #criminalminds.

If you want to see some of the more widely adopted hashtags, you can see them at http://www.hashtags.org/

Just remember.. use your powers for good. Don’t hashtag important tags on unrelated content. For example, don’t post a funny picture and tag it “amberalertfeed.” That wastes everyone’s time that is constantly searching the amber alert news feeds.

Have a good day y’all.


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