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Part 1 of Demystifying #hashtags: 5 reasons you want to use them

I am a huge fan of hashtags. I try to use meaningful hashtags whenever I can, but I have fun with them too. I'm such a fan of hashtags that I would be totally fine with my email client implementing hashtag support, along with Facebook and every other social network - outside of Twitter (and Google+ soon). See? I'm a devoted fan.

As much as I like them, I recognize that hashtags can be confusing for the uninitiated.

Just what is a hashtag, anyway?

Simply put, it's a word or phrase that is preceded by a hash mark - #, e.g., #socialmedia. Hashtags as we know them today are in use primarily on Twitter though there is support in other places. They make search on subject instantaneous. I see a hashtag in a tweet and I can click on it and search results of every tweet that has that hashtag pop up for me to browse through. For twitter, it provided a much-needed search "engine" that allows users to group tweets together by topic.

Should I use hashtags?

I'm a hashtag fan girl, so you can take my word with a grain of salt, but yes you should definitely use them! And here are five reasons to use them that will enhance your twitter experience:

  1. Community - Many communities around a host of different subjects use hashtags to categorize tweets so the community will see them. Participants in the community can follow the hashtag to see what others are saying and engage the in conversation. One community I have seen that is very active is #w2p, Web 2.0 professionals.

  2. Topical - There are as many topics out there that people are talking about at any given time as there are minutes in the day. Probably more. How do you narrow it down, though, when you're  not following all those people or if you never see the tweets? If you're tweeting about #facebook, throw on a hashtag. #socialmedia is one I use often.

  3. Events - This one is similar to community, but centers around a specific event. Sometimes the hashtag extends outside of the event, but not always. This summer, the organizing committee for the first annual Social Capital Conference used #socapott to promote the conference and then it was our hashtag for conference related tweets. We continue to use it for our regular tweetups as well.

  4. Twitter Chats - One of the most valuable events to participate in on twitter is an organized chat. There are so many twitter chats and they're a great way to connect with other like-minded people and learn from them. Time has been in short supply lately, but my goal is to eventually schedule one a week - they are just that valuable. Participants in the chat, such as #blogchat, use the hashtag to follow the discussion, but it tends to last for a specific period of time.

  5. Causes - Many causes are using hashtags to raise awareness and invite discussion. One that is near and dear to the heart of Ottawans, particularly in the last couple of weeks, is #NoMoreBullies, bolstered further by the recent suicide of Jamie Hubley after years of bullying. Earlier this year, #twestivalOTT was in use to promote the region's largest ever tweetup and raise funds for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health.

  6. Bonus reason - Fun! - This is your bonus reason for using hashtags and it's one that I've seen discouraged by more than one person. It's not likely to be of any practical use, but editorial comments added to tweets - #coffeestat #whoneedssleep, etc. - can be entertaining.

Hashtags are a great tool for sharing information about topics and connecting with community. Used wisely, they will enhance your twitter experience and you'll get more value out of the time you spend. Next time, I'll dive into part 2 of demystifying hashtags and offer some best practices and tips so you can get even more out of using them!

Do you already use hashtags? Do you find them useful? Do you have any questions about them?