13 March 2013

Tweet, Twote, Twat

A former colleague of mine recently graced Facebook with an F-bomb laced rant disparaging Twitter users and our beloved hashtag (#). He wanted to know when it started being called a 'hashtag' since it's always been the 'pound', insisted that it go back to being the 'pound' sign, then proceeded to tell all us Twitter users, in no uncertain terms, what to go do with ourselves.

All I had to say was: #howrude!

Actually, I was a bit surprised, as this guy is part of the generation of Digital Natives - those who have grown up with technology and its associated on line networking sites, as opposed to those of us who remember social networking being a series of hand written letters sent through the post or notes surreptitiously passed in class, lengthy phone calls on phones with lengthy cords, and occasionally cans with string. Aside from a refresher on exercising professionalism in social media, the post made it clear that my former colleague could do with a lesson on Twitter and the history of the humble hashtag. At the very least, he could do with a thesaurus.
The hashtag, or # on your keyboard, has been used in computer coding for longer than my fuming friend has been alive. It's used to mark metadata, enabling information to be grouped and searched by a key word or short phrase. Americans know the '#' symbol as the 'pound' key on our telephones and its infuriating use in automated phone systems that entreat us to enter our information "followed by the pound key" only so we can sit on hold for several months until a real person answers and asks for the same information all over again. Similar systems in England say, "then press the hash key". Rightly so, since in England and most of the eastern hemisphere the pound symbol is universally acknowledged to be '£', the symbol for UK currency, the Pound Sterling.

To be blind is bad, but worse is to have eyes and not see. Had my articulate acquaintance ever travelled much or bothered to keep abreast of current trends in social media he would understand the difference between 'pound' and 'hashtag' rather than assault our sensibilities with an excessive use of colorful metaphors (bonus points if you can name the cultural sci-fi phenom from whence that phrase came).

If you're a Twitter user, you will be well acquainted with the hashtag, which has gained omnipresence in social media since its first use on Twitter in 2007. At first it was a way to follow real time news associated with a natural disaster. It has since blossomed into a way to categorize everything from Justin Bieber's hair to breaking world news (some wretched souls actually view those as being one and the same). There are now guidelines for hashtag etiquette, suggestions for the appropriate length of a hashtag, even 'hashjacking' (jumping into a preexisting conversation about a trending hashtag to promote your product or services). According to, "The primary purpose of a hashtag is to bring conversations on the same topic into a single thread to make it convenient for information consumers to view and compare ideas." Such is the mania for hashtags that someone's even gone and named their baby Hashtag (oh, the poor child!).

Here's how it works: a Tweeter - if they're not too verbose and use up their 140 character allowance - can enter the hashtag followed by a word or phrase, such as: #Olympics, #royalbaby, #Trees, #ReplaceMovieTitlesWithPope, #FlowerShow, #meme, #DoctorWho, #onthisday and so forth. The hashtag can also be incorporated into the tweet text but beware of overuse that makes the message difficult to read. Once those hashtags are in place I can go on Twitter, enter a search word and, providing my search word has been hashed (not sure if that's the proper technical term, I just made it up), all the tweets and topics associated with that hashtag are mine for the reading. Like so:

I can always tell when people are confused with social media conventions since the hashtag isn't used on Facebook, yet some people insist on applying hashtags to their Facebook posts. Either they're confused or they're using an on-line social media manager that allows you to enter a status once and upload it to all your social media accounts simultaneously. Hashtags simply have no meaning on Facebook, I'm sorry to say.

I'll admit I was late to the Twitter party, joining in earnest when I met a merry bunch of historians in London who all seemed to be tweeting (I'm looking at you, London Historians!) and boy, am I glad I got there in the end. It's been a great tool for keeping up with history and garden (and garden history) issues and trends around the world, for promoting my blog, and for supporting friends' businesses. I follow an equal number of foreign and domestic people and institutions and have to say that we Americans are lagging when it comes to using social media most effectively. Attitudes such as that so clearly expressed by my former colleague do nothing to recommend us to the wider world, either in our understanding of this growing technological phenomenon or as residents in the ever shrinking global community.

So strongly do I believe in the growing use and popularity of this thing called social media in promoting our businesses and ideas that I even created a voluntary position for myself to aid a friend who's too busy to keep up with all this stuff: Social Media Butterfly. So why not join the party? Come on over to Twitter and follow me @dawiles. I promise I won't go overboard with the hashtags. #Much