Looking for a Belated New Year’s Resolution? Use Twitter Hashtags wisely.

Happy new year to all readers of this blog. I’m grateful you’re there. I hope your holiday has been as peaceful and full of joy as mine has been, and the nice thing is, mine is continuing for a couple more weeks yet.

Have you made, and already broken, any new year’s resolutions yet? Well here’s an additional one you might like to throw into the mix…for keeping that is, not breaking. It’s not too late and it’s good Twitter etiquette.

Last year, I immersed myself in the task of writing a guide to Twitter from a blindness perspective. The result was Tweeting Blind, my user manual for Twitter for experienced tweeters and new bees alike.

In subsequent interviews I’ve done for the book, and other interactions quite separate from the book, it seems there is quite a bit of education to be done about what a hashtag is, how you set one up, and why they’re important. This is all explained in the book of course, but I’m feeling all generous so thought I’d share it here. It’s partly out of self-interest, since I’ve just had to unfollow a bunch of people filling my timeline with numerous tweets about the same subject that I’m not interested in reading, but I’m unable to filter the subject matter out because no hashtag is being used.

So let’s start with a definition. A hashtag is a keyword that serves as a way of grouping tweets together by subject. It’s called a hashtag because it always starts with a number sign, which in some parts of the world is also known as the hash symbol. It’s a fantastic way of using Twitter to create a global virtual chat room around an event, bringing people closer together, helping you connect with friends doing the same thing you are, and making new friends along the way.

. Have you ever been reading tweets about your favourite TV show and seen a number sign followed by a key word? If you’re on Twitter, I’m sure you have. That’s a hashtag.

The advantage of using a hashtag is that you can read tweets from people tweeting about that subject even if you’re not following them. For example, for many years now, I’ve been a fan of the longest-running radio series in history, The Archers, produced by the BBC. When I listen to the show, I also track the #TheArchers hashtag. Some of the commentary from listeners who are tweeting in as they listen to the show is hilarious, some of it deliciously snarky. I couldn’t possibly follow all the people who tweet in with the hashtag, and indeed most of the rest of what they tweet may not be of any interest to me, but I love being able to connect with this global group of people listening to the same thing as me.

All you have to do to use a hashtag is to write it in your tweet. It can be anywhere in the tweet, but it’s a good idea to keep it at the end, particularly when you know a lot of screen reader users will be participating.

Indeed, anyone can start a hashtag just by writing it in a tweet and seeing if other users adopt it too.

There’s another important reason to use the HashTag – good old-fashioned etiquette, and Twitter courtesy. Many Twitter clients have easy filters that allow users to filter out Hashtags from their timeline. So if you like what I tweet about technology and other things but you have no interest in what I have to say about The Archers, you can go ahead and filter tweets from me, and everyone else, out of your timeline concerning The Archers as long as the hashtag is used consistently. So hashtags are a way of bringing people with a common interest together, as well as a way of not having to unfollow someone for excessively tweeting about something in which you have no interest. Everyone wins.

Other examples of hashtag use include when you attend a conference. Common examples of this last year in the blindness community include #ACB13, #CSUN13 and #NFB13 whose purposes are self-explanatory. These kinds of hashtags are great means of finding out who is at the same conference as you, and obtaining information about sessions you couldn’t attend. After all, we can’t be at two places at once. They’re also a good way for people who couldn’t attend the events to participate virtually.

When a breaking news story rocks Twitter, hashtags are often used so you can track reports from people tweeting from or about the story. I recently got a breaking news alert about the tragic incident in Scotland where a helicopter crashed through the roof of a crowded pub. By doing a quick Twitter search, I was able to find the hashtag people were reading and track the news story in real time.

My own Internet radio show, the Mosen Explosion, generates a lot of tweets, and if you have no interest in hearing the show, it can be pretty cluttering in your timeline. Because we strongly encourage all tweeters into the show to use the #MosenOnAir hashtag, not only does it bring listeners together even if they’re not following each other, but it serves as a convenient and considerate way for those uninterested to turn off tweets about the show without unfollowing those who are actively tweeting away. Win win.

So to make the most of Twitter, it really is a good idea to understand the importance, and power, of hashtags. Use them wisely, and you’ll find more interesting people to follow, and others will follow you too. Equally important, you won’t risk losing followers through numerous tweets about a subject about which some of your followers have no interest, but cannot filter out.

Happy tagging for community and sanity building.