The Twitter Hashtag: What Is It and How Do You Use It?

Last Updated: January 23, 2015

Hashtag: I Don't Get ItOnce you’ve started using Twitter, it won’t take long before you come across what’s known as a hashtag. That’s when you see something in a tweet that has a # prefix. (The # is a hash symbol, hence the term hash tag or, more commonly now, hashtag.)

For example, if you’ve seen tweets related to the recent typhoon that has devastated the Philippines, you may have noticed some of them had #Haiyan in them.

When I first saw them, it took me a while to wrap my head around what the purpose of this thing was. But, once I “got it,” I realized it’s not as complicated as it seems.

A hashtag is simply a way for people to search for tweets that have a common topic. For example, if you type #Gravity (or #gravity or #GraVItY, because it’s not case-sensitive) into the Search Twitter box at the top of any Twitter page and hit Enter, you’ll get a list of tweets related to the movie. What you won’t get are tweets that say “Who discovered gravity?” because “gravity” isn’t preceded by the hashtag.

Note: Your search results will give you three options for filtering the list. The default is Top. I’m not sure how they decide what counts as top, although I imagine it has to do with the number of followers a tweeter has or the number of times the tweet has been retweeted. You can also show a list of All tweets with that search term or only those from people you follow.

The good thing about the hashtag is that if someone wrote a tweet without putting the word Gravity in the main message, it will still show up in your search because of the tag. Eg. “Just saw this year’s best picture. #Gravity”

The flip side is that if you search using the tag, and someone wrote a tweet about the movie without including it, that tweet may not show up in your results, even if Gravity appears in the text. Eg. “Who thinks Gravity will win Best Picture this year?” (Sometimes it does, but not always.)

In a way, hashtags allow you to create communities of people interested in the same topic by making it easier for them to find and share info related to it.

Where do hashtags come from?

I think this question gets to the heart of the confusion about these danged things, because hashtags are NOT any kind of official Twitter function. The company has not created a list of topics that we can browse through to see if there’s one that interests us.

So where DO they come from? Well, any user can create one simply by adding it to their own tweet. For example, when a plane went down in the Hudson River a few years ago ago, some Twitter user wrote a post and added #flight1549 to it. I have no idea who this person was, but somebody else would have read it and when he posted something about the incident, added #flight1549 to HIS tweet. For something like this, where tweets would have been flying fast and furiously, it wouldn’t have taken long for this hashtag to go viral and suddenly thousands of people posting about it would have added it to their tweets as well. Then, if you wanted info on the situation, you could do a search on #flight1549 and see everything that people had written about it.

When hashtags first started being used, it was a very organic process that worked simply because of a group mindset that people like to categorize topics and this was one way to make it easier to do so.

Now that they are so common, they really only show up spontaneously if there’s a breaking news item. Otherwise, they’re used to promote, praise, or pan people (#Malala), brands (#Lego), events (#StanleyCup), and anything else people want to discuss en masse (#bacon).

There are a few other common ways hashtags are used as well:

  • Group Activities. These are things like college classes, conferences, clubs, associations, or online events, where there’s a certain group of people who want to share information among themselves through tweets (although be aware they’re still available to the general public). For example, a writer friend of mine, Michelle Rafter, runs a blog called WordCount with information for other writers. On the last Wednesday of each month, she hosts a Twitter chat around a theme and everyone who participates adds the hashtag #wclw (for WordCount Last Wednesday) to each tweet so everyone can follow along.
  • Update 11/15/13: My new favorite hashtag is one that was created for probably THE best group activity EVER: #SFBatKid.

  • Online Conventions. These are usually short terms or abbreviations that have become common ways to express certain concepts. Some examples are #shoutout, #nowplaying, #tbt (Throwback Thursday).
  • Asides. These are little extras people add to their tweets to express the way they feel or make a comment about what they just tweeted, e.g. #blessed, #mustread, #smh (shaking my head).

Note: Even though I’ve been talking about hashtags as they apply to Twitter, they are also now commonly used by other social media sites, including Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook.

How do I track topics of interest to me?

The first thing you would do is a basic Twitter search to see if a related term already exists. These days, odds are it does. In fact, I’ve been trying to think of something so obscure that one doesn’t exist (#underwaterbasketweaving, anyone?) and haven’t had success yet!

Probably the only reason you would need to create a new one nowadays would be for the group activities category I mentioned above. In that case, since the tag will use up some of your 140-character limit, you want to keep it fairly short, while still making it precise so other people aren’t likely to use it for another purpose. For example, let’s say I wanted to create a virtual book club with my friends scattered around the country. I might create the #ekbookclub hashtag that we would all add to the tweets we’re posting about the books we’re reading.

If you want more than just your friends to use the hashtag, you might want to “announce” it to your followers. For example, I created a hashtag called #tech4ludds for any tweets that people want to associate with Tech for Luddites. I did it by posting this:

Starting a new hashtag for Tech for Luddites. Got a question for me or a great tech tip to share? Add this to your tweet. #tech4ludds

This way, I’m letting my followers know that this now exists, so they can add the hash tag to their own tweets if they think it’s related to this blog somehow.

I originally wanted to create a tag for t4l for brevity but there was already a single tweet in existence at that time using that tag, if you can believe it! It was in Dutch and had a link to the Netherlands Unicef site. A Google search led me to believe it stood for Time for Learning. Probably a great program but still… Bummer. (That tweet is long gone but the hashtag is now used for all sorts of other tweets, so I gave up on it.)

This is probably the most common question I get about hashtags. There are two possible issues here. One has to do with whether there’s an issue with the hashtag itself. Twitter’s Help page explains some of the problems you can run into—for example if a hashtag is made up entirely of numbers, Twitter doesn’t make it searchable. However, in most cases, this is NOT the problem.

Instead, the problem is actually with Twitter’s own search feature. This Help article explains some of the factors that may be affecting you as well. For example, maybe you’ve got your page set to Top Results instead of All or maybe your tweets are protected. But the most important sentence on this page is buried near the bottom in the blue box:

Keep in mind that not all Tweets are indexed.

This article doesn’t say so, but Twitter used to publicize that they only index the last two weeks’ worth of tweets in total. But even if your tweets fall in that time frame, yours may not show up. You can try to contact Twitter Support to see if they can help you, especially if you’re using a hashtag to help people follow along during an event or for a specific use like a class ID, but no guarantees…

I hope the above helps explain how hashtags work and why you might want to use them. If you have any other questions, please post them in the comments below or send an email to F1@TechForLuddites.com.

#phew

Related Stories

Using hashtags on Twitter (Twitter Help)

#HashTagsGoneWild (T4L)

Join Me Today in a Twitter Chat on Monetizing Your Blog (T4L)

#ILovesMeSomeJimmyAndJustin (T4L)

The Hashtag Is About to Roll Out to a Billion People, and This One Guy Invented It (The Atlantic)

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Comments

  1. Amera Sailani says

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Its good article! I just wanted to know if twitter handles and hashtags actually work on FB ? That is do the hashtags while we tweet work on the facebook too ??

    – Amera Sailani

    • Elizabeth Kricfalusi says

      Hi Amera.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “work on Facebook”. Can you tell me specifically what you’re trying to do?

      Thanks!

      – Elizabeth

  2. says

    One thing also is after you search your hastag it will look like this on the top of the page

    Results for #myhashtag
    Top / All

    Make sure you click ‘All’ to see your Tweet in the results.

    • Elizabeth Kricfalusi says

      Hi Clark.

      Thanks for pointing that out. You’re right, that I wasn’t specific about how to do a search. You search for hashtags the same way you search for anything on Twitter, by entering the term in the Search Twitter box at the top of the page. For example, you would type #superbowl to find all tweets with that hashtag.

      I’ve updated the post to make it clearer. Thanks again for the note!

      – Elizabeth

    • tom says

      It was a poorly done,convoluted article. Only helpful for people who already have an understanding or people around to help them. Or want history. It isn’t a how do.

      What would be wrong with something simple like …first do this,then this, if you want to use a hastag you must start,or end your tweet with it. This is how. It is was written by someone who said she remembered what it was like to not know and forgot what the essentials of learning and teaching require. They assume everyone already has foundational info. A step by step is so hard to find for Twitter I have never used it. Especially since what you post goes to the world forever! You can’t do a test. I became disabled with a clotting disorder and am not at work. Isolation comes quickly in our world. For people who are alone it is difficult to absorb the technology. And we are a world very uninterested in the disabled,orThe elderly.

      Nobody needs an article like this if they are out in the world,so much. They can just ask. But If your isolated,then everything is difficult. It isn’t that the author doesn’t care. It is a universal problem. Certain people in situation that are not the “norm” are forgotten in our busy world. Ask any senior citizen. If they haven’t been tossed already. Angry? You bet! Lol..but it is a serious problem and this seemingly petty example Is sometimes the most frustrating of examples.

      Watch someone reply…here are ten great articles on how to..lol. They must be somewhere. They just don’t come up in the first pages of Google I guess. And I feel bad for ragging on the author. But it was not a how to article. It is an article with a lot of info,more than just a how to needs. Like my post here..lol

      • Elizabeth Kricfalusi says

        I’m sorry you didn’t find this article helpful, Tom. I know how frustrating it can be learning new technologies. I do try to be as clear as possible in my articles but unfortunately it didn’t come across that way to you. I hope you can find other sources of information that will work better for you.

        I do have some other articles about using Twitter in general. I don’t know if you’ll find them helpful either, but here are the links if you want to check them out:

        Getting Started on Twitter

        Two Twitter Tweaks

        Sharing: Tips for Using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest (HubSpot)

        Good luck!

        – Elizabeth

      • Optimizer says

        Tom, I generally agree with you, but at least this article comes closer than dozens of others which claim to show HOW to use Twitter. Elizabeth has been thorough, but the piece has way too much exposition. It’s an honest attempt. If only someone would write a short piece with “Step one…Step Two” about creating a Twitter topic using a hashtag. Twitter’s own website fails to do so! I can’t find one anywhere. That’s just goofy.

  3. Carl says

    ..but how will I automatically receive tweets containing a hashtag I’m “following” show up in my feed? I can’t imagine doing a separate search for every topic I’m interested in, each time I go to twitter.

  4. says

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for such a very good information about hashtags and @ signs when tweeting and writing messages on FB.
    I am quite new on this though I have been in the social media since FB was born but not using so much other techie terms whenever I am writing on FB and I am not tweeting as of yet and not even using Instagram.

    I have some questions though, they are as follows:
    1. If someone use hashtags with our brand name as sort of PR campaign, who owns that particular hastag plus brand name in the world wide web?

    2. Will this hashtag plus brand name can be used as a brand if they will promote it heavily and become popular? Will they be credited for the brand name hashtag plus brand name for it even though they don’t own the brand name?

    Your comment will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks in advance and regards,
    Maria

    • Elizabeth Kricfalusi says

      Hi Maria.

      Great question. Nobody “owns” a hashtag. People put hashtags in front of brand names all the time, just so others can find tweets related to that brand. If someone is pretending to be a brand by using that hashtag, there’s probably some sort of legal remedy for that, but I have no specific information about that.

      – Elizabeth

      • says

        Hi Elizabeth and Maria,

        Elizabeth this is a great guide, I’ll be sending this to a couple of my clients as a quick reference sheet.

        I wanted to bring a piece of information to light on Maria’s question about owning a hashtag. If your hashtag is related to a product or a service, you can trademark that hashtag.

        It’s not so much for personal gain; anyone will still be able to use your hashtag. Trademarking an effective hashtag simply means you have said to other companies “Hey, I’ve created this hashtag, don’t use what I’ve created to generate business, to steal business from me. If you do, I have documented I did it first.”

        So if a hashtag you’ve created around a product or service is trending, trademarking your hard work is a good idea.

        SOURCE: http://secureyourtrademark.com/can-you-trademark/trademark-a-hashtag/

        Protect your hard work!

        Best,
        J

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