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What is a Hashtag?
On Building Communities Online and Off...
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.
Why the "#" Symbol?
Use of the "#" symbol joined with keywords has origins in the C computer programming language which helped identify special keywords, as well as in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) circles where it helped label groups and topics (Wikipedia).
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.
- Click here to read Who Owns #Hashtags? from the Lexis/Nexis® Legal Newsroom.
- Click here to read Can You Legally Own a Twitter Hashtag? from Social Media Today.
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?
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