A guide to hashtags

Saturday , August 23, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Standard-Examiner contributor

Hashtags were invented to help Twitter users find tweets with specific content, but the use of the pound sign — the hashtag — has spread across social media. The little mark has helped raise millions and has also become the target of scorn toward those who misuse them.

You may have run across the most recent hashtag phenomenon, #IceBucketChallenge, an online campaign to raise money for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Last week, former President George W. Bush posted his own dousing video with the hashtag, joining Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Cruise and the Utah Jazz. As of Aug. 21, the ALS Association has raised more than $41 million, which it largely attributes to the promotion.

The single character has grown from an ingenious search tool to a real moneymaker on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. It all started in 2007 when developer and citizen journalist Chris Messina made his pitch to Twitter in a tweet, which read, "How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups … ?” The folks at Twitter were not impressed and rejected Messina's idea. Just a few months later, he encouraged other journalists to use the hashtag #sandiegofire during a particularly devastating series of forest fires, and the idea caught on. In 2009, Twitter made them official.

But you can have too much of a good thing. While hashtags can be useful, they're often misused. Here's your guide to getting the most out of hashtags — how and when to use them and when to steer clear.

A hashtag consists of a single word, even if the string is a phrase, meaning no spaces. You may use capitals to distinguish words from one another, but the uppercase letters won't make a difference in search results. You may use numbers, but no punctuation marks or special characters.

If you want to join a conversation around a single topic, do a little research first to find the most common hashtag. For instance, #ALSIceBucketChallenge is the variation currently trending on Twitter. If you want to make a new hashtag for an event or other special purpose, you'll need to dig deeper.

Always test a new hashtag before you use it. Type it into the website's search box and see what comes up — you may be surprised at the result. Try variations until you find one that works for you. Even then, take a step back and assess whether your hashtag could be misinterpreted. Is there any way that it could be used negatively? Many hashtag campaigns have gone wrong in the past like the infamous #nowthatchersdead. Posted at the time of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death, it prompted a slew of rumors that singer Cher had died.

Most social media experts recommend making hashtags as short as possible. They'll be easier to remember and won't consume such a big part of Twitter's 140-character limit. (Only Twitter imposes a limit; you may write as much as you'd like on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.) And while shorter is good, a clear meaning is better — even if it's longer. For instance, if you'll be running in the Top of Utah Marathon in September, use #TopofUtahMarathon, not its abbreviation #tou, which is associated with a group in Paris.

Hashtags can interrupt the flow of your post, so use them sparingly, say no more than one or two in a single comment. And, try using them at the end of your post instead of tagging individual words; your friends will appreciate it.

For hashtag novices, here's a safe one to use that everyone loves, #ThrowbackThursday. Post a photo from the past on your favorite social media channel, add a brief description and use the hashtag. Hashtag.org, a website that covers the rise and fall of the most popular hashtags, said #throwbackthursday is a perennial winner, generating around 22,000 tweets and close to 90 million views each week.

"It's been three years (or more) since #ThrowbackThursday started, and it still manages to trend not just in the U.S. but also the world," Hashtags.org said in a post. "Why? Because it taps the human emotion, which is really why hashtags reach trending status in the first place."

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. She has designed and manages several international websites. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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