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The evolution of the #hashtag

And how to keep up with ever-changing social media

BY TAYLOR WYLLIE

In August of 2007, then-Google designer Chris Messina suggested Twitter use hashtags as a way create groups and categorize conversations.
Twitter rejected the idea. Its users did not.

As hashtags grew in popularity, they jumped from Twitter, to both Facebook and Instagram, to people’s speech (as a millennial I’ve witnessed many a colleague ending a sentence with “#Blessed”).
 
But since its inception, Twitter has sharpened its search function so you can follow events using keywords. All you have to do is type in whatever it is you’re looking for — say the National Park Service Centennial — and it’ll pull any Tweet the subject’s mentioned in. Essentially, Twitter’s current search function stole the adopted role of any hashtag.
 
Keywords are trending now and the reign of the hashtag is over.
 
But don’t rejoice (or mourn) just yet. Hashtags are still an essential part of succeeding on social media, both in reaching your audience and following your beat.
 
Here’s a few things reporters should keep in mind each time they send out a Tweet:
 
Don’t make up a hashtag on your own.
 
Chances are, if you randomly decide on a hashtag, no one else will pick up on it. You may end up following the wrong conversation, and your Tweet will be filed away where people won’t find it. If you’re not sure if you’ve made it up or not, search your hashtag. If nothing comes up, scrap it.
 
But if you notice a hashtag that organically becomes popular, use it.
 
Sometimes a hashtag will naturally emerge — particularly surrounding bigger events. Monitor the conversation and you’ll likely be able to see what people are using, although 100 percent hashtag consensus is rare. Begin by searching the name of the event or business.
 
If there is no user-generated hashtag for the event you’re covering, and if you’re one of the only media members covering it, send out a Tweet sans hashtag.
 
Use hashtags sparingly.
 
Gone are the days when news agencies use multiple hashtags per Tweet, or even a hashtag with every Tweet. So-called “clean Tweets” can get more views than their hashtagged counterparts.
 
Remember to maintain objective reporting, even when tweeting.
 
Journalists have a responsibility to be mindful of the hashtags they do use — noting any unintended bias in the language of their hashtag. That doesn’t mean reporters can’t use slanted hashtags, it simply means know why you’re using it and how you’re using it. There’s still a debate on what the best way to go about this is, but essentially, if a trending hashtag is using language you otherwise wouldn’t, use the hashtag at the end of the tweet as a way to enter the conversation, not as a way to describe the event.
 
Know where your audience is getting news.
 
It’s a smart idea to consider whether or not the people you write for are actually on Twitter.
 
According to an article on Forbes, Facebook has 1.3 billion monthly, active users, compared to Twitter’s 271 million. If your audience is older or rural, you may not be reaching them by sticking to Twitter. Think about creating a reporter’s Facebook page instead, and use Twitter only to stay on top of your beat.
 
Remember hashtags aren’t only a feature of Twitter anymore.
 
The same information applies to all forms of social media — Facebook and Instagram especially.
 
The social media world is an evolving one — what happens today could change tomorrow.
 
Continually keep an eye on emerging trends and the evolution of old functions to stay on top of your social media game. ♦
 
— Author’s Note: this article was written with the help of the social media editor of The Washington Post, Ric Sanchez.
 
— Taylor Wyllie is an OWAA intern and student at the University of Montana, pursuing a degree in both journalism and environmental studies. She’s reported and edited for the independent student newspaper, The Montana Kaimin, for two years and her work has appeared on Montana PBS, Montana Public Radio and in the Missoulian.
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