The hashtag has become ubiquitous on social media as a means of connecting conversations, topics and events. But 16 years after its invention, Chris Messina, the man who started it all, believes it’s time for an upgrade.
In episode 355 of the For Immediate Release podcast I co-host with Shel Holtz (who’s away at present), I discuss proposals Chris published in a Medium post last month to address problems like spam, abuse and manipulation, and improve the user experience. He lays out six ideas to simplify hashtags, enhance their discoverability, and give more control to creators.
With hashtags now a mainstream social media tool, is it time for their next evolution? As I explore, I believe Chris makes a compelling case. Listen to my 7-minute assessment in the podcast, right here or on the FIR website. If you prefer to read rather than listen, continue here with the transcript below.
Welcome to episode 355 of For Immediate Release. I’m Neville Hobson in the UK, recording solo as my co-host Shel Holtz is away.
In this episode, published on the 25th of September, I’m going to talk about hashtags. Undoubtedly you have heard of hashtags, and use them on social networks.
But hashtags today have a problem, according to Chris Messina, the inventor. More than one, actually. Let’s start at the beginning.
In August 2007, Messina proposed using hashtags on Twitter to categorize and connect conversations about events and topics.
They started trending organically without any promotion from Twitter, whose initial response to the idea was negative. Messina helped popularize hashtags by using them consistently. They allowed users on Twitter to search for and participate in conversations about specific topics. They act as metadata tags.
Over the years, the use of hashtags spread to other social platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. Hashtags became a standard tool for connecting online conversations no matter the platform.
For the most part, Messina says, hashtag creation hasn’t changed since. You type a # character immediately followed by a word or phrase without spaces; you publish, and any added hashtags are turned into links.
Simple. Optional. Unobtrusive. Sufficiently dumb, he said.
But in August this year, 16 years on, Messina proposed that it may be time for a change. In an article he posted to Medium, he reflects on the evolution of hashtags and how, as social media grew, they also became a tool for spam and abuse, manipulated by algorithms to promote content, leading to a loss of their original purpose.
He lists examples of how hashtags have been abused to make their content more appealing to algorithms and gain visibility. For instance:
- “Hashtag stuffing”, where spammers flood popular hashtags with irrelevant or inappropriate content to gain attention or promote their products or services. This can disrupt conversations and make it harder for users to find meaningful content.
- Marketers may use popular and trending hashtags that are unrelated to their content in order to piggyback on the existing popularity and gain visibility. Known as “trend hijacking”, this can mislead users and create a negative user experience.
- And there’s “hashtag manipulation”: Marketers may create their own branded hashtags and encourage users to include them in their posts, often as part of contests or promotions. While not inherently abusive, this can lead to an oversaturation of branded content and diminish the authenticity of the hashtag.
Messina writes that Mastodon plans to move hashtags that appear at the end of a post into a dedicated “hashtag bar” below the post. It aims to visually separate the tags from the main content of the post.
He outlines several problems with Mastodon’s proposals:
- Hashtags placed at the end of posts can appear spammy, he says, and may not be visually appealing.
- The proposed changes to hashtags may interfere with creators’ intentions. The article suggests that the proposed design may prioritize how hashtags look over their functionality, which can be regressive.
- And hashtags were originally designed to be easy to create. However, the proposed changes may make it more challenging for creators to add hashtags to their posts.
To address all of these issues, Messina offers six ideas to improve hashtags on Mastodon and other platforms. I’ll outline them in brief:
- Simplify and standardize hashtags to make them more user-friendly and consistent across platforms. It promotes a more seamless and intuitive user experience.
- Enhance hashtag discovery and search to help users find relevant content more easily. This idea is applicable to all social platforms, as it can enhance content discoverability and user engagement.
- Optimize hashtags for local instances to foster community engagement and coherence. This can be relevant to other social platforms by encouraging the use of hashtags within specific communities or groups.
- Elevate metadata creation with user experiences. Messina emphasizes the importance of providing user-friendly interfaces for adding metadata like ALT text and location information to posts. This would enhance the accessibility and richness of content on many social networks.
- Crowdsource accessibility by involving the community in adding accessibility hints and information to posts, making content more accessible to all users. It would promote inclusivity and accessibility in content creation.
- In the fediverse, err on the side of creators by recognising the importance of their preferences and empowering them to choose how hashtags are displayed. Whatever the platform, this would give creators more control over their content and foster a sense of ownership.
We’ll have links to Messina’s articles in the show notes – the one I’m referencing here plus one other he wrote earlier this year – so you can read the six ideas in detail in the context of the complete story. He dives deep into backgrounds referencing Mastodon’s and Bluesky’s proposals and treatment of hashtags that add much context to the overall picture. Worth reading.
For me, Chris Messina raises important issues about a tool that has underpinned much utility and value for 16 years in how people connect topics, conversations, and other people on social networks, not only on Twitter, where hashtags originated. His suggestions deserve wider attention, discussion and consideration.
What are your thoughts about hashtags? Do you think there’s a need for the changes as Chris Messina suggests? Share them with us and other listeners. Email your comments to fircomments at gmail dot com. You can record your comment up to three minutes and send us the audio file. Or record right on the FIR website, go to firpodcastnetwork dot com slash for immediate release. And you can leave a comment on the FIR Community page on Facebook.
Shel will be back well in time for us to record the September long-form monthly episode that we aim to publish on October the second.
In the meantime, thanks for listening.
Transcript of FIR #355: The Future for Hashtags, published 25/9/23.
- How to report Twitter hashtag spammers – 27 April 2012
- It’s easy to focus your attention with a Twitter hashtag, wherever you are – 30 March 2010
- Switching off the Twitter hashtag overload – 16 March 2009