On Twitter you might see a hash symbol (#) in front of a word in someone’s tweet, for example #twitterhelp. The hashtagged word will also show appear as blue1 text which means that it’s clickable – if you click on it you’ll be taken to a search results page with other tweets similarly tagged. Applying a tag to a word in your tweet effectively creates a channel, or category, for that tweet which easily lets people view all2 the tweets on that topic.
Hashtags are often used by people at events, eg a conference. Lots of people will be there, they might not be following everyone else but if they all use the same hashtag then they can easily participate in a conversation about the event – and people not at the event can join in from wherever they are.
Hashtags are also much used while watching television programmes. The series 3 finale of BBC’s Sherlock notably generated a flurry of #Sherlock-tagged tweets from people celebrating the programme, but more controversial programmes also allow complete strangers to argue with each other over the internet, via hashtag.
In short, tagging lets you view or participate in conversations on Twitter beyond just the people that you follow (and who follow you) and it lets everyone read all the identically-tagged tweets as a ‘channel’ separate from their main timeline.
Here are the ‘top tweets’ for #twitterhelp and ‘all’ the tweets for the same hashtag, I’ve included the full address so you can see how they’re different. It makes no difference whether it’s #Twitterhelp or #twitterhelp by the way.
Hashtags as commentary
People also use what linguists call ‘commentary’ hashtags – adding a comment or emotion in hashtag form. These aren’t being used to widen the conversation, more as a way of expression.
- Why men are more retweeted more than women (2015) by Jessica Bennett
- How #Hashtags changed the way we talk (2015) by Muriel MacDonald
- Variation in the use of Twitter hashtags (2014) by Allison Shapp
- How the #Hashtag Changed the Way We Communicate (2013) by Lauren Schuhmacher
How to search for hashtags, and for other things, on Twitter (2015) by me, on this blog
1 re: blue coloured links – some users customise their colour-scheme so if you’re looking at their profile page links might show up a different colour, however in your ‘home’ timeline you’ll see everything as the same colour
2 When you click on the hashtag on the desktop version of Twitter you’ll be shown the ‘top tweets’ for #twitterhelp first, but if you want to see everything you’ll need to click ‘Live’ in the options at the top. On a mobile or tablet app you’ll probably see all of the tweets.