Hashtags are used on Twitter so twitter users (tweeters) can indicate appropriate keywords for their postings (tweets.) Users interested in a particular topic can search for keywords to easily find information about a subject of their choosing. For example, I often tweet about archives. So, at the end of a tweet on the subject I use the appropriate hashtag, which is #archives. I use the software Tweetdeck for most of my Twitter interactions. In Tweetdeck, I keep open a column for that #archives listing, so I can see what others are posting on the subject. I also usually have open #sschat (Social Studies chat) and #history (self-explanatory.) Lately, I've been following #twitterstorians to see what that's all about because it seems like a bit of a hodge-podge.
And that is precisely what can be the downfall of the hashtag system. They are user imposed standards. There is no one body making sure people are using hashtags in a uniform manner. For example, people post #archives, #archive, #archivist, and #archivists. In theory, I am interested in all of those areas. Yet, I do not wish to have columns open for all of them. It would take a lot more browsing and time to find interesting information. I just cross my fingers and hope that most of the news filed under related hashtags eventually makes its way to #archives. Even the use of the term "archives" has been a problem with non-archivist computer people telling the archivists to go away and leave their tag alone because they have their own agenda for it. There are ways that people can try to check how a term is being used before applying it. There are ways for people to lay some kind of claim to a term, as with the use of Twubs, but there is still no guarantee that it will stick. (Where are the catalogers when you need them?)
I remember a problem a year ago related to this issue. I think it related to the #AskaCurator event that invited individuals to post questions to curators who were standing by all over the world to answer questions. There was some confusion about whether the hastag was #askcurators or #askacurator. (I could be getting my events mixed up. It could have been #askarchivists or some other similar day. Nonetheless, there was confusion and lack of standardization and some people were tagging one way and others were tagging another way.)
The use of symbols is old hat for librarians and those in related fields. We were using what are called Boolean operators long before the Internet was popular. Symbols such as +, -, * and parentheses help us explain exactly what we are seeking when we search for information. For example, arch* means in my search find me everything that begins with "arch." the ending could be "ives," or "ive", or "ivist." It could event be "aeology." When I began using Twitter a couple of years ago, # seemed somewhat natural to me. Categorizing my world is the norm and symbols are familiar.
For me, I find hashtags useful for three main things. 1. for telling others interested in a particular topic about something interesting I am doing that relates to it or for sharing news I have found on the subject 2. for following a few select hashtags to stay on top of specific topics and 3. for helping me track trends in my own posts. The third area is perhaps the most useful to me because I know what my hashtags mean to me. I know which ones I use for different topics. At the end of last year, I did a year end review of archives related topics that were hot online in 2010. I realized after going through all of my tweets to compile the list that my hashtags could be really, really handy at year's end to pull out these trends. My hashtags help me find information about specific subjects so that I can go back and review them.
Hashtags are a really useful tool and there are many ways that you can use them to your advantage. If you don't use them yet, give them a try. If you do use them, think about how and why you are using them and see if you can make them more valuable to you and your social media audience.