What’s a #hashtag for?

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.

Top: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23twitterhelp&src=typd
All: https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&vertical=default&q=%23twitterhelp&src=typd

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.

Further reading

See also
How to search for hashtags, and for other things, on Twitter (2015) by me, on this blog

Notes
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.

Why do people put a . in front of an @ at the start of a tweet?

It lets them send the tweet to all of their followers.

Any message you send beginning with @name is delivered to @name’s notifications (it also shows up in their timeline but they might not see it if they’re not online at the same time) and into the timelines (but not notifications) of anyone who’s following both you and @name.

While anyone can see any public tweet you sent by looking at your profile (if you’ve blocked them they can just log out by the way) no-one else will receive a copy of your tweet.

Any non-alphanumeric character before the @ disrupts the ‘addressing system’ and will deliver your tweet to all of your followers’ timelines. By convention the least visibly intrusive character is a full stop . but you can use , ‘ / etc. Numbers or letters won’t work because they also stop the @name from working (if it doesn’t show up as a blue clickable link it won’t go to their mentions).

You can also rewrite the tweet so that a word or phrase appears before the @name (in which case you don’t need the .).

Some confusion arises because the @name convention functions in three distinct ways

  • as an addressing system to send a message to them
  • as a denoter to say who has done something
  • as an address to say that you are at a place

eg

I could send these three tweets

  1. @barbicancentre I really enjoyed that event last night
  2. @barbicancentre will be screening this fantastic film tonight
  3. I am @barbicancentre

In the first I’m telling the Barbican Centre I’ve enjoyed an event of theirs. In the second I am (unsuccessfully) telling my followers that there’s a film on at the Barbican Centre (only BC and people following both me and BC will see it). In the third I’m clumsily announcing my location.

For the second example to work I’d need to use the . or rewrite the tweet, either of these would work:

  • .@barbicancentre will be screening this fantastic film tonight
  • I’ll be @barbicancentre for this fantastic film later

Caveat
The strategy of . @ (“dot at”) is sometimes used to draw attention to someone else’s tweet, perhaps one that you disagree with. When using it in this way if you have a lot of followers, or you have ‘surfaced’ an otherwise hidden but slightly controversial tweet that others haven’t yet noticed, you might find that your followers ‘pile on’ to this other person and criticise them for their tweet. Just something to be aware of. A disproportionate ‘show of powe’r can come back to bite you.

Acronyms and dictionary of terms

This is a stub and may end up being a page rather than a blog post…

Apps and platforms – there are different ways of viewing Twitter and tweeting. On any browser you can use desktop Twitter by typing https://twitter.com into the address bar, but on smartphones and tablets it’s usually easier to use an app (many are free, downloadable from the Apple app store or Android store). What you see on the resulting ‘page’ can depend on the app or the device. Just because something is the case on App X doesn’t mean it’s the case on App Y or Device B. See also third party apps.

Currently I tend to use desktop Twitter on Firefox and Echofon for iPhone when on the move.

Address, link and URL – these all mean more or less the same thing but it’s dull writing the same one every time. On Twitter these all appear as clickable links (typically in blue text but it will depend on your settings) and, by default, have a length of 22 characters (and allow +1 for a space) whether or not the link is longer or shorter than that. This means that if you type http://is.gd (an URL shortener which itself has only 12 characters +1 for a space) in a tweet Twitter will treat it as if it’s 22 characters long, but a genuinely long URL will still only have 22 characters assigned to it.

Avatar – fancy word for profile pic. It just means a representation of you, but in digital space.

Desktop Twitter – what you’re using if you’re reading Twitter via a web browser (eg Firefox, Internet Explorer) and can see something like https://twitter.com in the address bar. While mobile (phone and tablets) apps are probably used more, currently desktop Twitter is where you can do all the heavy lifting on Twitter (searching further back in time, amending your account information etc).

Live-tweeting – tweeting / reporting in real-time from an event (eg a conference). Ideally adding a bit of context and explaining what’s going on rather than just capturing sound-bites, but some of those are fun too.

Third party apps – any app used to access Twitter on any device (including a mobile phone or tablet as well as computers) that isn’t created or owned by Twitter. This includes things like Echofon or Janetter for phones etc, or Tweetdeck for computer browsers. I think it’s important to be aware that these can behave differently (show different things) from ‘native’ Twitter-owned apps such as ‘Twitter for iPhone’. If someone blocks you you’ll still see their tweets if you’re using Echofon but you won’t if you’re using Twitter for iPhone. This has led a lot of people to infer, wrongly, that blocking someone means they don’t see your tweets.

See Can you stop someone from seeing your tweets? for more info on blocking someone and what happens if you make your account private.

Reverse image search[I might move this to another section]. If an account seems suspicious you can use Google Images or Tin Eye to search for the image in their avatar / profile pic (or in a tweet). This involves dragging and dropping the image into the search bar and seeing other pages on the internet where that image has been used (or stolen from).