Hashtags are unattractive, easily abused, the butt of jokes, and yet more popular than ever.
As a fixture in online and popular culture, the hashtag's ascent to near-total saturation is improbable and puzzling. Devised and implemented by early Twitter users, hashtags weren't a part of Twitter's original infrastructure. Today, the hashtag's hostile takeover is nearly complete, as the unwieldy construction has found its way onto TV screens, basketball courts, and, most regrettably, into our spoken lexicon.
But what was created as a means for organization, discovery, and reach may have outlived its usefulness.
Some journalists, like New York Times social media staff editor Daniel Victor, argue that, when it comes to hashtags, the idea of extended reach is exaggerated and perhaps even a myth. "Getting any single person's attention is just short of impossible, like a single Niagara droplet screaming for notice as it shoots down the falls," he wrote last March of the hashtag's ability to increase visibility during large-scale events like the Super Bowl.
"There are two things that matter when it comes to reach," Victor told BuzzFeed. "The first is how many are using the tag, and then how many are searching for it. We have absolutely no available data on how often these tags are searched. Really, that's all that matters. If nobody is searching, nobody is going to find it."
While Victor admits that the tags tend to work for journalists on a small scale at Q&As, events, and conferences, he notes that when it comes to doing journalism with and on social media, hashtags aren't always a helpful resource. "If there is a shooting at the Empire State Building — as there was last summer — I'd much rather use Geofeedia or an advanced Twitter search to find eyewitnesses close to the scene. That or I'd search phrases like 'I'm OK' or I'm safe' or 'I was there.' Often with a generic hashtag like #EmpireStateBuilding, you'll just get links and headlines for a big news event."
Victor isn't alone. An overwhelming number of online journalists BuzzFeed spoke with expressed ambivalence or even disdain for hashtags, noting that they tried to avoid using them unless necessary. Not exactly a vote of confidence from people largely tasked with reporting on and making sense of the greater social media conversation.
And what about marketing? Sponsored hashtags were the first and continue to be the most critical part of Twitter's advertising platform. In fact, the marketing community has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the hashtag, which they used to, in their words, "own a piece of the conversation."
Even here, fatigue appears to be setting in. More often than not, it's near impossible for companies and public figures to control and shape social conversations, especially around prescribed terms. In many cases, branded hashtags have backfired against their creators — so much so that there's a name for the phenomenon: the "bashtag."
Amy Vernon, general manager of social marketing for Internet Media Labs and a proud supporter of hashtags, regards them as "the atomic and one of the single most important elements of social media," yet still notes that over-corporatized or brand-created hashtags are mostly destined for failure. "I wouldn't use a branded hashtag unless I had a very specific message to convey," she said. "The brands that do it right understand that they're about the conversation and join it when it makes sense to instead of trying to form and own the conversation."
Even in politics, where hashtags littered the online conversation for years, their utility is being questioned. Hashtags caused a fair share of headaches during last year's presidential campaign. The Obama campaign's digital outbound director for social media Laura Olin told BuzzFeed that "hashtags had only two real viable uses for my team during the campaign," which included getting messages trending during high-visibility moments like debates, and injecting voter voices into specific issue campaigns like the White House's #40dollars campaign. The rest of the time, she notes, hashtags were little more than a depository for, let's say, unhelpful content.
"Those relevant-use cases represented maybe 5% of the period of the election," Olin said. "The rest of the time, hashtags were ugly, irrelevant noise at best, or, at worst, an outlet for pointless anti-Obama hashtag games (your typical #NextObamaBook or #ObamaMovies thing) with plenty of ignorant and sometimes outright racist content that, if you made the mistake of peeking in, just served to make you feel depressed about the state of humanity."
Romney digital director Zac Moffatt echoed a similar lesson: "If you're looking to control the conversation, then hashtags are potentially dangerous," he said. "But if you're looking to seed conversations and give the users a signal to rally around, sometimes they can play that role." But Moffatt also notes that for visible figures and companies of all kinds, hashtag "reach" is a two-way street. "You're increasing reach, but that's also because people are talking about it in a non-positive way." Moffatt told BuzzFeed he noticed that negative hashtags — like the popular #ObamaIsntWorking — saw better results throughout the campaign.
Look no further than Anthony Weiner's recently revived Twitter feed, which, with its excessive hashtags and other grammatical BlackBerryisms, looks and feels strangely out-of-date.
Hashtags, as we've come to know them, will linger for some time. Twitter still sells them to advertisers, and there are multiple reports that Facebook is planning to bring them onto its social network in the coming months.
And yet it's becoming easier by the day to imagine a world without the octothorp. Some hashtag Twitter searches — see below — now turn up not just matching tags but untagged keywords, suggesting that even Twitter's uses for the hashtag are decreasing.
"As Twitter search and trend detection has gotten better, could be that hashtags' days are already numbered as even that 'atomic unit' of Twitter. Instead it's just words," Olin said. "Go figure."
"Twitter users also seem to continually be changing the way they use the platform — for example, people are using favorites, a long-standing feature, differently now than they were even a year or two years ago," she said. "So I wouldn't be surprised if hashtag use changed in ways we can't even anticipate."