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What is a Hashtag?

Updated on November 24, 2014
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker with over 25 years of experience in sales, marketing, advertising and public relations.

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What is the Definition of a Hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase, without spaces, preceded by the "#" (pound, hash or number) symbol (example: #hashtag). Today, a primary use of the hashtag is on social media to help organize posts and topics around specific keywords to make them easily searchable and followable. In practice, hashtags can often function as keywords in the social-verse just as regular SEO keywords do within search engines.

When people include a specific hashtag in their Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other social media posts, they are telling their followers and the world that this post is about a specific topic OR that it is relevant for others using the same hashtag.

Though hashtags are now used throughout the social media universe, they really became mainstream through Twitter. With a limit of 140 characters per Twitter tweet, a shorthand hashtag is a useful tool to identify topics.

Because social media users purposely insert hashtags into their postings, users are identifying themselves with particular topic feeds and groups. This can provide valuable information for the social networks, marketers, media and researchers on what's hot or trending in general and for specific populations. Many marketers also launch and promote their own hashtags to monitor response or public relations "buzz" from their social media marketing efforts.

The # symbol (also known as the pound, hash or number sign) identifies topics and keywords on social media networks.
The # symbol (also known as the pound, hash or number sign) identifies topics and keywords on social media networks. | Source

How is a Hashtag Created?

Here's something that surprises many social media users. They can create and use their own hashtags in any way and any time they wish, subject to a social network's terms of service policies. Technically, all users need to do is type in the "#" symbol, the keyword or topic they want to identify and—boom!—a hashtag is born.

But... that raises the question of hashtag ownership and trademark issues.

Did you know what a hashtag was and how to use them before reading this article?

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Who Owns Hashtags and Who Can Use Them?

In theory, no one truly "owns" hashtags as of this writing. But, legal pun intended here, the jury is still out on this developing area of intellectual property and trademark law.

Consulting an attorney about possible legal protection for a hashtag that is unique and also unique to a business or brand name is recommended.

Anyone can use any hashtag at any time on Twitter or social media, as long as it does not mislead others in suggesting affiliation or violate other terms of service for the social network.

The ability for anyone to use established hashtags is both good and bad. It's good in that anyone can join in on any social media conversation simply by including the hashtag in a post, tweet, etc. However, it can be bad in that spammy, poorly behaved participants can overload a topic feed with rude, inappropriate, irrelevant or obscene commentary or even overuse a hashtag to the point that people will be hesitant to follow it.

A recourse for dealing with hashtag abuse is to report the suspect behavior to the social network's support team for handling since it may violate the network's terms of service.

Is there a Directory of Hashtags?

Yes! Two common hashtag directories are:

Both of these sites allow users to add their hashtags, or add a definition to an existing hashtag, so that others can find and understand them.

Though from 1997, it helped identify clanning and cocooning trends. Worth a read.

What are Hashtag Communities and Chats?

These days, many people are more connected to their affinity groups—non-family clans with common goals or interests—than even their own blood relatives. And social media has just fueled that trend.

One of the ways this trend has grown is through hashtag communities on social media, particularly Twitter. Basically, a hashtag community is a loosely tied, ad hoc group of people who consistently use a common hashtag when posting to the social networks. Some communities have participants from every part of the world and number in the thousands.

On Twitter, these hashtag communities can be fostered and expanded by hosting a chat. On a specified date and time announced by a community leader or influential member, for usually up to 60 minutes (though some can go for hours!), anyone in the community who wants to connect in real time with other community members can simply tweet using the hashtag. Everyone who wants to participate can monitor the feed either through the Search function on Twitter OR through a service such as Tweetchat.com. Often these chats are scheduled to discuss a particular topic or do Question & Answer forums. Warning: The chatting can go lightning fast!

Disclaimer: Any examples used are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest affiliation or endorsement. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne

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    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Alun! I think a lot of people (including me!) do what you do with the keywords. Only way to really see if they're effective is to set up a column on tools such as HootSuite to search for the # plus the keyword and then monitor it regularly. That's a lot of work if you have a lot of keywords! So I try to stick with a few basic topical and community-based hashtags to keep it from being overwhelming. Hope you're enjoy the holidays so far. Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK

      I'm still trying to get to grips with hastags and how to use them to best effect. I advertise my hubs on Facebook and Twitter and in the posts I usually put in a few arbitrary keywords from the hub and stick a hashtag in front of them, but I never have any real idea whether they are effective, or whether they could be made more effective. So thanks for this hub. Alun

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Lurana! Glad you found the information helpful. And, yes, the hashtag directories can be very useful. Thank you for your kind words and support! Happy Weekend!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 2 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Well-written, with very helpful info! I knew what they were but appreciate seeing it articulated so well. I had never heard of hashtag directories before. Voted up and useful. ~Lurana

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Sheila! Glad you found it helpful. Agreed, the whole hashtag thing can be quite confusing. Happy Sunday!

    • SheilaSchnauzies profile image

      Sheila 2 years ago from Omaha, NE

      Very informative and helpful, thanks for writing this! Cleared up things a bit for me.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi alexadry! Glad you found it informative. Have a great weekend!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 2 years ago from USA

      Awesome explanation of hashtags, I learned several things I wasn't aware of by reading this hub. voted up!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi anglnwu! Glad you found it helpful. Thanks so much for reading and your support! Have a great day!

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 2 years ago

      I've some idea of hashtags but I learned so much just from reading your hub. Interesting and useful, it's a thumbs up for me all around.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi rajan jolly! Glad you found the post helpful. Using hashtags on Twitter has been very helpful for me, too. Thanks for stopping by and have a beautiful day!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Interesting and useful information Heidi. I use hashtags on twitter posts and have found them to increase my views.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hello DealForALiving! It does take a while to get used to using hashtags on social media. Glad you found this hub for more info. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

    • DealForALiving profile image

      Sam Deal 3 years ago from Earth

      Thanks for writing this up. I'll need to read again and take a closer look so I can make the most of hashtags.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Technogala! I've found using hashtags improved my views and clickthroughs, too. Thanks for adding your experience to the conversation. Have a great weekend ahead!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Suzanne Day! Thanks for reading. Yes, they are become commonplace on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Glad you found the post useful. Thanks so much for your support and have a great weekend ahead!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi MarleneB! Glad you found the information helpful. So agree that some people go nuts with using too many hashtags. Actually, about 3 per post, tweet, etc. is about the limit before it starts looking spammy. Thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend ahead!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Kevin/TheExaminer-1! Really, Twitter was where hashtags really took off and now the other social networks are adopting the practice, too. Hashtags can be used by anyone. Since my focus is usually on business, and businesses have a lot to gain from using hashtags, the focus of the post was more towards that side of it. Thanks so much for your support! Have a great weekend!

    • Technogala profile image

      Technogala 3 years ago

      Informative one!! I'm also a hashtag user In twitter and facebook . It serves to improve viewers for my page. Thanks for sharing...

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 3 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      Thank you for this timely information. I've been using hashtags, knowing that people pick them up in some way, but wasn't aware of the overall picture of them. I've been noticing them a lot on Facebook and Pinterest too. Voted useful and up!

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      This is very useful information. It gave me a better understanding of what hashtags are all about. Although, I do believe some people overuse hashtags to the point that their posts become entirely unreadable. I once saw a post where every word was preceded by a hashtag. I would say, that's overdoing the hashtag thing.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      This was interesting Heidi, I had tried Googling 'hash tag' a few times and never really understood the descriptions they gave. I was wondering why you kept mentioning Twitter though ? I am not a member of that, plus are hash tags only for businesses, marketers, etc.? I voted this up, shared and pinned it.

      Kevin

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Epbooks/Elizabeth, in the early going, I had to really remember to use them, too. But once I started using Hootsuite and set up columns for following the various hashtags and topics, I got enough reminders to use them. Hope all is good with you and your 4-leggers!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Aw, thanks, mySuccess8, for the kind comments! Glad you found the info helpful. Have a beautiful day!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi FlourishAnyway! Yep, many people learn social media tips & tricks from their kids. Glad you found the info useful. #HaveAGreatDay!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I love the idea of hashtags, but I consistently forget to use them. Every now and then I remind myself. :) I'm going to have to make an effort to use these more.

    • mySuccess8 profile image

      mySuccess8 3 years ago

      Well-written Hub, which made it so interesting to read. You have provided so much info, thanks.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I learned about them from my teen but didn't know about the inner workings described here. They have been helpful on G+.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi carter06! I'm also a hashtag user on Twitter. It's helped get more exposure for my links and posts, as well as help me connect with lots of new people. Thank you so much for reading and tweeting! Have a wonderful day!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Sharkye11! Yes, those hashtag directories can be very useful. Indeed, hashtags are a simple concept, but with a lot of moving parts. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a wonderful Wednesday!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi purl3agony! Glad you found the info helpful. Twitter has some conventions, like hashtags, that are a bit confusing if you're not active in the Twitterverse. But now that hashtags are making their way over to Facebook and Google+, I think we'll see more of them than ever. Hope you find a useful and clever hashtag for your organization. And have a beautiful day!

    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 3 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Great info Heidi..I use them on twitter and Instagram and they work well..it's good to have a clearly set out understanding of their purpose and how they work though..will tweet this..Cheers

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Brilliant! I use hashtags, and I know they work, but I had no idea they had so much going on behind them. The links to the directory really helps, since most of my Tweets are related to caregiving. I can see what tags are being used most often. Thanks for the helpful info!

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 3 years ago from USA

      Hi Heidi! My organization recently discussed creating a hashtag for an upcoming project. I admit I don't use Twitter and never really understood how hashtags worked. This is a great hub for someone like me. I appreciate your information and can now understand some of the things we need to consider before starting to use our own hashtag. Thanks. Voted up and very useful!!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Alphadogg! Once you figure out how to use them, they can be very useful. I've found some amazing business contacts and friends by following relevant hashtags. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great week!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Glad I was able to give you some peace, billybuc! Hope you're having a great week!

    • Alphadogg16 profile image

      Kevin W 3 years ago from Texas

      I just recently figured out the meaning myself and how to use them.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you! Seriously, I have heard it and heart it but had no idea what it was. Now I can rest in peace. :)