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Choosing #Hashtags

It’s no secret that ProfHackers are fond of Twitter. Ryan Cordell wrote a thorough and helpful post on “How to Start Tweeting (And Why You Might Want To.” Mark Sample has offered a pedagogical framework on teaching with Twitter as well as practical advice for Twitter in the classroom. George Williams has addressed questions of inclusion with conference tweeting, and guest poster Derek Bruff has prodded us to think about encouraging a Twitter backchannel at conferences.

One of the useful features of Twitter (and as of last week, Facebook!) is the ability to hashtag. For the non-tweeting ProfHackers among us, a hashtag is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a tag preceded by a “hash” or pound sign (#), which will allow users to search, follow, or capture a series of tweets. The beauty of the hashtag is that a user need not be following the author to see tweets as long as they are hashtagged. This feature allows for users to follow events such as keynote talks or conference panels from afar. It also can be a great way of finding new people to follow.

However, not all hashtags are created equal. Here are some tips for choosing a good one:

  • Since Twitter is a microblogging platform, each tweet can only contain 140 characters. That 140 count includes hashtags, weblinks, and twitter handles. Thus, a good hashtag is a short hashtag. Usually, the fewer characters the better for Twitter hashtags; since Facebook doesn’t restrict character count as strictly as Twitter, hashtag length is less of an issue there. Too few characters and nobody will understand what you’re referencing, but too many will detract from the substance of a tweet. Consider this example: I recently attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). At 36 characters, this would be a terrible hashtag:
    #DigitalHumanitiesSummerInstitute2013
    #DH13 might not be much better since “DH” could refer to “digital humanities,” “doll houses,” “double-headers,” “door handles” or any number of other things (see my point below about choosing a unique tag). The conference organizers published #dhsi2013 as the official Twitter hashtag, which is short as well as recognizable.

  • Unfortunately, Some people attending #dhsi2013 (myself included!) didn’t get the hashtag memo right away and initially used #dhsi13 instead, which brings me to the next important rule of hashtags: make sure that everyone knows which one they should be using. Ultimately, specifics matter less than consistency. As long as everyone is using the same tag, tweets are easily searchable (or blockable) via a hashtag. They are also easily archived with a program like Storify (For a primer on Storify, see Ryan Cordell’s post or for Storify alternatives, see this post by George Williams).

  • The other important factor to consider when choosing a hashtag is uniqueness. You want to select something that hasn’t already been used extensively for other purposes. Adding a date (“2013” or simply “13“) or other number can be helpful in this regard. The Modern Language Association (MLA) backchannel includes the conference year, so this past January’s conference in Boston was #MLA13 while the upcoming convention in Chicago is #MLA14. The other professional conference I attend has gone a different direction and chosen the aniversary of the conference instead of the year for its numerical component. The Modernist Studies Association in Vegas this past October was #MSA14, while the upcoming one in England is #MSA15. Again, it matters less what the numbers are as long as users are consistent using them.

  • Lastly, hashtags need not be dry or uninspired, though they certainly can be and still fulfill their purpose. I’ll close with a hat tip to Twitter users (and ProfHacker readers) @wykenhimself and @trickyholly for coining my favorite conference hashtag, #shakeass14, which was an unofficial hashtag for the latest Shakespeare Association meeting this past spring.

What about you? Have you used hashtags on a social media platform? If you have additional tips for selecting a hashtag, please share them in the comments section.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user joe0153]

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