Daniel Victor at the New York Times has an interesting article up on NiemanLab highlighting the inadequacy of hashtags for growing your audience. It’s a smart piece with a lot to recommend it, but it takes a pretty narrow view of the hashtag’s utility & purpose.
Victor identifies what you might call the “Niagara Problem” – if there are more tweets than searches per second for a given hashtag, your chances of your tagged tweet being seen by a new audience are so slim as to be negligible, like a droplet in a waterfall.
He’s got a smart analysis that concludes that a single #SuperBowl tweet was probably visible only to those searching the hashtag within a window of about 1/17 of a second after the tweet was posted – any later and it disappears beneath the 166 other #SuperBowl-tagged tweets posted each second during the game. It’s certainly an issue for massive conversations that have always had this problem – but it ignores the incredible usefulness of hashtags in millions of smaller niches, and indeed their implications for the way we use language.
A Question of Attention Economics
This is simply a case of demand for attention exceeding supply – the problem isn’t intrinsic to the hashtag. So many people have so much to say about the Super Bowl that it induces 167 tweets per second – tweets without enough context or relevance to justify the average user reading them. It’s true that once a hashtag passes a certain frequency threshold it’s difficult to get a word in edgeways. But that’s always been the case for conversations where people are more interested in being heard than listening.
Hashtags can build a digital fence around a specific conversation topic.
Take a counterexample – one highlighted by Victor himself – a conference hashtag, which allows event attendees to join the discussion in real time, or just read a digest of the day’s events so far. Conferences, due to their smaller scale, have a much more balanced attention market. Tweets are likely to mostly come from attendees. Searchers include both attendees and those following proceedings from elsewhere. People are searching (supplying attention) because the tweets are likely to be confined to a particular area of interest. #SuperBowl is simply too large an event, and the audience too disparate, for there to be meaningful discussion between strangers – the ad hoc community formed around an event like a conference doesn’t exist between Super Bowl viewers.
Victor’s article presents #SuperBowl as the primary use case for hashtags – using a massive event with a huge audience as a vehicle to extend your reach. But the Super Bowl happens once a year, while tens of thousands of smaller events take place around the world every day, each with their own hashtag. Surely focusing on extraordinary cases like the Super Bowl and ignoring the long tail of smaller communities who gather around a hashtag each day is failing to see the wood for the trees.
#Context, #context, #context
Even when they’re not necessarily connecting a community, hashtags can serve as an efficient means of denoting the topic of a message. One word takes the place of an explanatory phrase, making communication more efficient: important when time or space is of the essence.
Supplying context is more important than ever on social media platforms because they allow your message to spread far further than anticipated. When you’re talking to an engaged audience, the context is generally understood, but when your message is amplified beyond the intended readership, it can be tough to get a grip on what, exactly, is under discussion. A short string of characters is often enough to make the indecipherable clear, even without clicking through.
Hashtags and language
Last week it was revealed that Facebook will be adding hashtag functionality to their platform, in an effort to sync up public conversations about a single topic. This isn’t just Facebook copying Twitter’s features – the hashtag is creeping into the internal logic of our language. People already use hashtags on Facebook even without the ability to click through, to denote a topic or context. It’s a new part of speech, designed for the search engine and the status update, which is genuinely innovative and useful.
The evolution of language – not just its words, but its structure and syntax – is determined by how we use it, and as communication increasingly takes place through computers and text, our language has begun to take advantage of the unique affordances of the medium – in this case, search and machine readability.
A hashtag (not just on Twitter – conceptually), allows you to point and contribute to the global public conversation around a topic, immediately giving you context beyond the particular snippet of information that led you there. It’s the first case of language designed for machines slipping into human discourse. It’s like linking to a source, except rather than static pages, the reader is plugged into a live conversation.
Is the way that Twitter searches hashtags perfect? No. Do people use them inefficiently, and sometimes idiotically? Without a doubt, yes. But viewing the social evolution of the hyperlink as a means to increase your audience is a pretty blinkered view of a fascinating innovation (which, it should be noted, was first invoked by a user rather than Twitter itself.)
Not to mention the article’s kicker – that hashtags are “aesthetically damaging”, which is pure neophobia. The hash has become a functional symbol of language, just like commas, ampersands and exclamation marks. I’ve never been a fan of the way the question mark looks myself, but what else do you use to indicate that you’re asking a question?