According to a new study, 75 percent of social media users use hashtags. If you don’t know, hashtags are phrases or words prefixed with the # symbol, which is a way to group such information — for example, one for everyone attending Lollapalooza to use or everyone tweeting about a company like Pringles.
In an ideal world, that’s the only way hashtags would work. We don’t live in an ideal world.
The problem is we’ve seen lots of examples of people hijacking hashtags and using them against brands that started them. McDonald’s, Disney, Pixar and many other companies have come up against this, and it isn’t that those brands are inherently evil or hated, it’s just that when you mix a veil of anonymity with the Internet, people will do jerky things willy-nilly. And a hashtag gives them a convenient one-stop shop to do it all together against a single target.
So maybe what we’re really talking about here is that businesses should avoid being tempted by “shortcuts” on Twitter — things like hashtags and promoted tweets are ways of bypassing the “old-fashioned” way of building an audience and trying to fast-track to more engagement. Twitter says promoted tweets have proven effective, but it seems like only in ways that are a bit ephemeral and hard to measure definitively, like “stronger message association.”
Or if to not avoid them, at least to not bank on them as strongly. Part of the good news is that hashtags have spread to Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, so users will be savvy enough to understand what they are and how to use them — which means they could link back to you on those platforms. But just as often, hashtags are used as punchlines to jokes, and unless people are using clients that will auto-fill, they’re allowed to stray and misspell hashtags or will just let the user make up whatever hashtag they well please. As they should — social media is what people make of it, and you can’t force people to use it in a way they aren’t. That’s all.
David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as IFC’s comedy, film, and TV blogger, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City and an adjunct professor in DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. (He also co-runs a blog behind the DePaul class, DIY Game Dev.) He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.