7-point primer on using hashtags on social media

From aiding a search to sparking a meme, hashtags can serve a variety of purposes. Keep these in mind as you navigate the various social networks.

The latest news regarding hashtags has the social media world all atwitter. Facebook is considering officially adopting hashtags.

It makes sense—people already use them there. Like the original use of hashtags on Twitter, the user base is driving this change.

While some of my friends bemoan the change (“Hashtags don’t belong on Facebook!”), others embrace it (“It’s about time!”).

Perhaps you’re new to hashtags, or have seen them and have no clue what they are or how to use them. Hashtags are words or phrases that begin with a pound sign (#). Adding the sign in front of a word makes it a clickable link on Twitter.

Their original use was to organize information in an easily searchable and readable format. With more than a half billion tweets flying around the Internet, hashtags allow you to hone in on what people are saying about a particular topic. Searching “#blogging” will pull all of the tweets with that hashtag. They will presumably all be about blogging.

Here’s a quick rundown of the various ways you can use hashtags on a variety of social platforms, from Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to Instagram, Pinterest and Foursquare, whether they officially support hashtags or not.

1. Organize and search via subject.

As I mentioned above, you can append a tweet with a hashtag such as “#blogging,” “#surfing” or “#cooking.” Many people will regularly post using subject-related hashtags. Clicking on them is a great way to get a quick look at what people are talking about in relation to those topics.

This can be a great research tool. On Twitter—and perhaps Facebook, eventually—you can create lists for specific terms.

2. Manage and follow events.

The original hashtag was related to an event known as “#barcamp.” When a large number of people gather in one place—or even multiple locations—for an event, an official hashtag is great way to harness the discussion and help people find each other.

For instance, if you attend a convention, following the official hashtag will let you know what is going on, and you’ll even be able to find and meet other attendees. Those who can’t make the event can play along at home by following the hashtag.

3. Provide general context.

Use hashtags in connection with other hashtags to provide some sort of context for the rest of the post. Someone posting a picture from my town might include the hashtag “#Lancaster,” or even another hashtag related to the specific building or scene in the photo.

4. Follow shared experiences via conversation.

From the finale of “The Bachelor” to the Oscars or Super Bowl, we can all watch major events from the comfort of our homes and share the experience with others. Many programs and televised events now advertise official hashtags as a way to promote and manage conversations.

5. Follow online chats and discussions.

There are many weekly or monthly Twitter chats on just about any topic. Rather than having the conversation get lost in the stream, a hashtag can help you follow along and participate. It’s also great for webinars and other online events. Users can answer questions related to the guest or topic or pose their own.

6. Participate in a meme.

Memes pop up all over the place from people who just want to have fun. Someone might get bored and start using a hashtag to see if it catches on.

One popular meme is “#replace_____with_____.” For instance, with the selection of the new pope, a few versions of this meme arose, including #ReplaceMovieTitlesWithPope. Users replaced one word of a famous movie title with the word “pope.” For example: “Gone with the Pope” or “Snow White and the Seven Popes.”

7. Infuse random punch lines.

Some people make up hashtags on the spot, with no thought of them ever being more than a personal hashtag. They are a way of offering a punch line or statement that emphasizes what the person is saying.

For example, I might drop my laptop on the floor and decide to tell the world. I’d follow it with the hashtag “#ImaKlutz.” One friend of mine often posts pictures of herself, her children or some other life scene with some text and the hashtag “#artofmotherhood.”

These categories are not comprehensive or exclusive. Sometimes people use a few of them together, but I caution you: Too many hashtags in a post can be annoying. Use them sparingly and meaningfully.

In what other ways do you see people use hashtags?

Ken Mueller is the proprietor of Inkling Media, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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