The hashtag has evolved beyond Twitter

hash_tag_imageAt a recent event a Twitter VP made the case for that platform still being the primary home of the hashtag, despite the fact that it’s also in use on other networks like Instagram and Google+. And Facebook just non-announced it is looking to bring hashtags to that platform in an effort to bring some immediacy there.

While my own thinking on the use of hashtags on status networks has evolved over the years from “never, ever, ever” to “I get where they’re useful for specific things, though most people still don’t understand them and therefore have a tendency toward overuse” it’s obvious that they are becoming more and more mainstream. A plethora of companies, whether they’re consumer-packaged goods manufacturers, movie studios, TV networks or just about anything else have seen their value as rallying points for audience conversations. So you see them in Super Bowl ads, in movie trailers, as additional “bugs” in the corner of your screen as you’re watching “New Girl” and elsewhere.

But what’s lacking is a consisten experience, and the widespread adoption of hashtags by multiple platforms could actually do more to dissuade companies from making them part of their marketing efforts. After all, if it’s not clear what experience I as a marketer am asking the audience to participate in then I’m less likely to make that ask. Let’s think this out:

I, watching TV, see a moment on X show that I’d like to discuss with my friend. Since the producers have helpfully suggested a hashtag to use in that discussion I go over to Twitter and do so. But while there is other conversation happening I don’t see any of my friends doing so. That’s because they’re over on Facebook talking about it. I missed out on an opportunity because the hashtag is now universal currency and in this case the call to action didn’t include “Discuss on Y platform” specificity.

I’ll admit that’s a bit of a straw man argument. But I don’t think that makes it any less likely. There are two ways to avoid this fate that come to mind:

1) An open hashtag standard. Yes, this might sound ridiculous. But the best possible user experience is that for clicking on a linked hashtag to take them to a central repository of updates on that topic that is platform-agnostic, pulling from everywhere to present the entire conversation regardless of where it’s taking place. This…is not likely.

2) An emphasis toward on-domain aggregation. So as a follow-up to the initial call to action to use a particular hashtag in the first place there’s another one telling people to head to moviestudio.com/#hashtag to view the entire conversation. This is more likely, though considering the advertising-centric motives behind hashtag adoption by status networks it’s not going to be their favorite option.

Interestingly, a service like Storify could be well positioned to take advantage of either scenario. It’s great at aggregation across networks and the “Stories” that are created are easily embedded elsewhere on the web. And, with what would admittedly be a lot of work, it could leverage its position as a platform-agnostic aggregator to pioneer some form of open standard.

Hashtags seem to have caught on, despite the protests of those who feel they’re an ugly and annoying intrusion onto the user experience. If more platforms are going to start using them then that user experience needs to become much better and more intuitive or this will be just another social media fad whose time comes and goes.