The pound sign or hashtag is visually represented by the symbol ‘#’, and by placing the symbol in front of a word (or series of words) on a social network, it will turn that word into a metadata tag. In simple English, the # symbol turns the word(s) immediately following it into a searchable term that can be used on that website or social network, which is activated by someone clicking on that hashtag.
[Since this article was published, there have been numerous developments with the use of hashtags within social media and the wider world; you can read about them here]
Once clicked, the viewer will be presented with a series of posts by others (and possibly yourself) that feature the word which has been turned into a hashtag. As you can imagine, this can be a very powerful marketing or lobbying tool, and can be used by the typical user of Social Media to highlight their post to others who may be commentating on the same thing.
So, for example, if I wanted to comment on the UK Budget of 2013 on Social Media, I would see what hashtags others are using to highlight their posts on various social networks, and then use it myself. Therefore, my post would be something along the lines of “The Chancellor is looking nervous in the House of Commons #UKBudget2013”. Anyone clicking on #UKBudget2013 in either my post or another’s would see a stream of posts on that social network that have also utilised, thereby creating an open thread or conversation on that platform.
The following series of words #ThisIsAHashtag is, in itself, an example of a Hashtag within a Tweet.— Nick Lewis (NLC) (@NLCuk) March 20, 2013
Did you notice that the multiple words and numbers within #UKBudget2013 had been concertinaed together? If you don’t do this, only the first word of the phrase will be turned into a hashtag. Also make sure that the first letter of each word in the phrase is capitalised, as there have been some embarrassing instances of another unintended phrase emerging from the collision of words…
Hashtags are supported by Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+, but is culturally most associated with Twitter. Others use hashtags on other Social Media platforms such as Facebook to emphasise a point or to be ironically humorous, but this is technically pointless as the metadata tag function does not work on these other platforms. Some get quite annoyed at their use, deeming them unsightly, and get especially annoyed when they are used on platforms that don’t support the search function. Recently, however, Facebook has expressed an interest in using the hashtag on its own platform so it soon could become even more prevalent.
Hashtags have also crossed over into other media, such as Text and e-mail language, again solely for humourous or slang purposes. A popular one is #Fail, which is used to indicate in derogatory fashion a public event, statement or action. TV companies and consumer brands also create and market their own hashtags in the hope that people will use them on Social Media, to create viral awareness of programmes or products, although this can be a double-edged sword used by the viewer or consumer to register their displeasure with what they are being sold.
Going back to the example of using the UK Budget of 2013 as a hashtag (#UKBudget2012), in his response to the Budget Statement itself, the Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband even tried to get a hashtag, #DowngradedChancellor, into common usage:
Hashtags are obviously now here to stay, and it is advised that everyone who professionally uses Social Media should learn how to use them, and use them well.