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

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

NOTE: It’s called a hashtag because the “#” symbol is referred to as a “hash” symbol in some places. (It’s more commonly referred to as a “pound” symbol in the U.S.)

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is simply a way to categorize a tweet’s topic(s), which then makes it easier for people to search for other tweets about those topics. For example, if you type #Hamilton (or #hamilton or #HaMiltoN, because it’s not case-sensitive) into the Search box at the top of any Twitter page and hit Enter, you’ll get a list of tweets, most of which will be related to the Broadway musical.

You’ll also get taken to these search results if you click the hashtag link inside a tweet, like the embedded one below.

The results page provides several 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 choose to display a Live feed (all tweets with the hashtag that will continually refresh as new tweets are posted) as well as feeds of tweets that include links to current News stories, Photos or Videos. If you click More Options, you’ll get a menu that lets you filter tweets based on who and where they’re coming from, as well as options to save and embed the search or to do an advanced search.

One of the best things about hashtags is that it allows you to create communities of people interested in the same topic by making it easier to find and share related information.

NOTE: Earlier I said most of the tweets in the search results will relate to the Broadway show. That’s true especially for the Top results, because the show Hamilton is something lots of people are tweeting about regularly. However, there’s not a one-to-one relationship between topics and hashtags, so that same hashtag could be used in tweets that have nothing to do with the show at all. But you’re more likely to see these in the other feeds or if you add another term to the search like “#hamilton city” or “#hamilton lewis” (without the quotation marks).

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 (no pun intended), 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 posted 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, e.g. #HurricaneMatthew.

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. I also found this excellent post about planning Twitter events (and not just because it links back to this post!).
  • NOTE: My all-time favourite hashtag is one that was created in 2013 for probably THE best group activity EVER: #SFBatKid.

  • Themes. These have sprung up in the last couple of years and you can usually find at least one as a trending topic. I have no idea who starts these things but they’re meant to encourage people to write tweets around a certain concept. For example, as I’m writing this I see a hashtag trending for #ISeeMyselfAs where people complete that phrase in the tweet. You might also see one like #PamperAMovie, which is a challenge to people to change a movie’s title so that it now has something to do with pampering.

    These types of hashtags generally have a lifespan of about a day before they disappear into the Twitter ether.

  • 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 commonly used by other social media sites, including Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook.

How do I create my own hashtag?

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 originally wanted to create a hashtag for “t4l” but at the time there was already a single tweet in existence 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 factor is the phrase at the beginning of the first sentence:

“While we may not show every Tweet in search results…”

This article doesn’t say so, but Twitter used to explicitly say that they don’t index every tweet. I don’t know if that’s still the case but even if it isn’t, your tweets still may not show up in search. 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. From the same article:

Note: Twitter search intends to bring you closer to content most relevant to you. Our results are refined to combat spam and increase relevance to provide the best possible search experience. Our Support team is unable to force individual Tweets into search.

Learn more about using hashtags on Twitter. >>

#phew

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Elizabeth Kricfalusi

View Comments

  • It's still kinda hard to understand the meaning of hashtag, I see the word Twitter over and over again, how do you understand it if you want to use it in the Facebook world more simplified! Please help I'm trying with everything in me to absorb the true meaning

    • Hi Gwendolyn.

      Hashtags aren't really used a lot in Facebook. But the general purpose of them anywhere is to help categorize the post/tweet, etc. so people can find other ones on the same topic.

      - Elizabeth

  • do you have an opinion about the preferability of putting hash tags within the tweet or after it?

    • Hi Walter.

      I think it depends on the tweet. If the word you want to hashtag makes sense as part of the tweet itself, that's the one you should add it to. If not, then add it at the end.

      - Elizabeth

  • Thank you for the good info. I'm a 71 year-old male who just completed 2 1/2 years of advanced education and internship to enter into a new vocational emphasis. I realized it's time to expand my technological base. Can't wait to tweet my grandchildren. Very helpful.

  • Maybe I'm from the 'older generation' (Can't believe I'm actually saying that now) that has trouble understanding the inner workings of social networking... I do however use Facebook quite regularly.

    So my question concerning Hashtags is this: How do Hashtags differ from any other kind of search within a certain environment? Why use the '#' symbol at all?

    Thanks,
    Randy.

    • Hi Randy.

      I think there are two tangible benefits of using the hashtag:

      - It identifies which words in particular the poster thinks the tweet/facebook post etc. is about.
      - The platforms make words with hashtags links so you can click them and find all other posts with the same tag.

      - Elizabeth

  • I know I've made comments about this sort of thing before, but I find Twitter/Tweetdeck increasingly bizarre in the way they seem to operate!
    I posted a tweet this morning, which had several hashtags included in it (all relevant I might add), and before I sent the tweet, I had tweetdeck open (but NOT all the hashtag windows open), and I found that my tweet appeared almost instantly in the hashtag window of the first hashtag I used (if that makes sense), but DIDN'T appear in any other relevant hashtag windows I happened to have open at the time! It's almost as if it completely ignored the other hashtags I used? Before you ask, yes, I did type them in properly, with spaces between the hashtags, and twitter recognised them too, because it comes up with a list of tags as you're keying them in, so all I have to do is use the arrow keys to select and hit return! Simples!
    There's kind of no point opening windows AFTER the event, because it's not guaranteed that tweets will appear (in fact I did that immediately afterwards, but no sign of my tweet!
    Oh, and I also still have the problem of my tweets NOT appearing at certain times of day (morning seems to be a favourite).
    Bizarre!!!!!!

    • Yes, it's definitely frustrating. Unfortunately, I don't know of a good solution for this problem. :(

      • As an add-on to my last comment, (although you might argue that it's not relevant to this particular post), it is kind of important to note, for people who are trying to tweet for the first time for example, and wondering why it's not working, it would appear that Twitter has started to "shadow ban" tweets?
        Although I admit that it doesn't quite explain SOME of the issues I've been experiencing, it might explain some other problems I've been having, with tweets not showing etc.
        It appears that Twitter might have started blocking tweets that it doesn't like?
        If this IS true, then it will just add to the confusion of the obvious (what appears to be) bugs in the system!

  • Thank you Elizabeth. I enjoyed this content too! Made me feel less luddite and more lucid.

    Bravo for being so open about your commission connections. You went above and beyond.

    • Thanks for the nice comment, Steven. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave it. Have a great day! - Elizabeth

    • I would never say *all businesses should do anything, not even that they should be on Twitter at all. It really depends on their marketing strategies and overall business goals.

  • Thanks for the Hash Tutorial, Elizabeth! I've been in High Tech since punch cards, but found this subject mystifying. As you say, it IS really pretty simple; just needed a concise explanation all in one place. I have to say, though, that I got a good chuckle out of your "help" email address... F1 indeed! Love it... :-)

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