By Jennifer Peebles | October 30th, 2009
For all of my ink-stained friends out there who are trying, trying, trying to “get” The Twitter — and you are many, I know — I’m gonna explain what those darn pound signs (“#”) are about in Twitter messages and how you can put them to use.
But first, a story.
When I first signed up for a Twitter account, I thought it would be a cool way for me to share what I was doing with a fairly small circle of good friends.
I kept my Tweets “protected” and only visible to people I knew and trusted — after all, it seemed to me that Twitter was only good for telling your friends what you were doing right then, like “I’m eating my Froot Loops” or “I’m having a colonoscopy.” What if what I was doing was standing in line at the cash register at Home Depot — did I want the entire world to know that they could go rob my house?
But Twitter has grown into something much more useful than that. Not only are people now using it to share their thoughts with thousands of people on their “follower” lists, they can also share their thoughts with people on Twitter who aren’t even following them and don’t know them from the man in the moon.
Twitter isn’t just about telling your closest pals that you’re almost done putting out the fire that broke out on your Snuggie sleeve when you reached over a lit candle to grab the remote. Twitter is allowing people in faraway places to tell us, in real-time, about the censorship and repression going on in their countries. It’s allowing people to share political commentary here at home and to share links, thoughts, bon mots and smart remarks about any topic under the sun. All through a handy device called a hashtag.
A hashtag on Twitter is like a keyword that you stick in your Tweet text — by putting a pound sign in front of it, you signal to the reader that it’s a keyword.
Then, as you read a stream of Tweets, you can see who’s Tweeting on the same topic by quickly looking for the same hashtag to show up. Or, you can search for that hashtag via Twitter’s own search engine to find everyone in the Twitter-verse who’s Tweeting on that subject.
For instance, several bloggers and Twitter folks we follow here at Texas Watchdog attended and live-Tweeted some meetings earlier this year of the Texas State Board of Education, which had garnered national attention by getting into an evolution-versus-creationism debate. Some of those folks were progressive bloggers, some were conservative bloggers. They had travelled to the meeting in Austin from numerous locations across Texas. But we were able to easily keep track of what was being said by all of them by searching on the hashtag of #txsboe.
In fact, by searching for that hashtag, we could see everyone in the entire world who was Tweeting about the Texas Board of Ed, even if they were in Timbuktu and had only read about the debate in, say, the Timbuktu Times.
There are hashtags for just about everything these days, some used to a great extent, some not.
If you’re Tweeting about a topic that’s hot in the news today, you might include #hcr for “health care reform.” Or #publicoption. Or #economy. Or #stimulus. Or just #politics.
If you’re a Tweeting from a red-state perspective, you might end your Tweet with #tcot for “top conservatives on Twitter.” The folks in the blue-state perspective might end with #tpot (“top progressives on Twitter” — also #topprog), while libertarians have #tlot. (And Texas conservatives have created their own, “#txcot.”)
And you can create your own. We’re an online newspaper covering government in Texas, and we saw a lot of people using #txpolitics. But that’s a broad topic, so we started using #txlege just for Tweets about the legislature. Now, I know several frequent Twitter folks who use #txlege. (How do you create a new hashtag? Easy. Just use it in a Tweet. Go one better and send out a Tweet encouraging other Tweeple to use it, too.)
Schools have theirs — Tweeting about the Aggies? End your Tweet with #TAMU. Places, too — there’s #houston and, for our state capital, #ATX.
Groups and events can have them, such as #spj for the Society of Professional Journalists (the people who brought you this blog). And when SPJ held its recent national convention in Indianapolis, celebrating SPJ’s 100th birthday, Tweets specific to the conference were hashtagged as #spj100.
There are hashtags for causes, too — environmental hashtags include #sierraclub, #nocoal and, if you don’t mind some mild profanity in your hashtags, #cleancoalmyass.
For open government issues, there’s #opengov, #transparency and #FOIA. We also started #txfoi for Texas-related open government issues.
What’s your best hashtag use-case?
Jennifer Peebles is deputy editor at Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit online news site in Houston. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles. She stopped protecting her Tweets a while back.