Once you've started using Twitter, it won't take long before you come across what's known as a hash tag. That's when you see something in a tweet that has a # prefix. (The # is a hash symbol, hence the term hash tag or hashtag.)
For example, if you've seen tweets related to the recent U.S. government stimulus bill, you may have noticed some of them had #stimulus in them.
It took me a while to wrap my head around what the purpose of this thing was but, once I "got it," I realized it's not as complicated as it seems.
A hash tag is simply a way for people to search for tweets that have a common topic. For example, if you search on #LOST (or #Lost or #lost, because it's not case-sensitive), you'll get a list of tweets related to the TV show. What you won't get are tweets that say "I lost my wallet yesterday" because "lost" isn't preceded by the hash tag.
The good thing about the hash tag is that if someone wrote a tweet without putting the word LOST in the main message, it will still show up in your search because of the tag. Eg. "Who is hotter? Jack, Sawyer, or Desmond? #lost"
The flip side is that if you search using the tag, and someone wrote a tweet about the show without including it, that tweet won't show up in your results, even if LOST appears in the text. Eg. "Do you think LOST has jumped the shark?"
In a way, hash tags allow you to create communities of people interested in the same topic by making it easier for them to find and share info related to it.
Where do hash tags come from?
I think this question gets to the heart of the confusion about these danged things, because hash tags are NOT any kind of official Twitter function. The company has not created a list of topics that we can browse through to see if there's one that interests us.
So where DO they come from? Well, any user can create one simply by adding it to their own tweet. For example, when the plane went down in the Hudson River a couple of weeks ago, some Twitter user wrote a post and added #flight1549 to it. I have no idea who this person was, but somebody else would have read it and when he posted something about the incident, added #flight1549 to HIS tweet. For something like this, where tweets would have been flying fast and furiously, it wouldn't have taken long for this hash tag to go viral and suddenly thousands of people posting about it would have added it to their tweets as well. Then, if you wanted info on the situation, you could do a search on "#flight1549" and see everything that people had written about it.
As you can see, it's a very organic process that works simply because of a group mindset that people like to categorize topics and this is one way to make it easier to do so.
How do I track topics of interest to me?
Let's say I'm interested in basket weaving. The first thing I would do is a basic Twitter search on the term itself so I can see if someone's already created a related hash tag.
Now, I've gone through a few pages of results and, while there are plenty of tweets with the term "basket weaving" in them, I'm not finding any that have included a hash tag.
So now if I want to create a community of people who will share their love of basket weaving, I'll create my own hash tag.
Note: Before you create your own tag, you might want to search on a few variations to make sure they don't already exist. I looked for #basketweaving, #basket, and #weaving, and they either didn't exist or didn't apply to this topic.
Since the tag will use up some of my 140-character limit, I want to keep it fairly short, while still making it precise. For example, #basket might make some people think of basketball instead of basket weaving. So I could create a tag called #basketweave that isn't too long, but is clear what it's about.
To make this hash tag "live", all I need to do is write a tweet and add #basketweave to it. It can be anywhere in the tweet, not just at the end. And I would probably announce that I was creating it to alert my followers. For example:
Fellow basket weavers. Let's share tips and tricks by adding #basketweave to our tweets.
Now, I'm not going to do that, because I'm not actually interested in basket weaving. (No offense to any weavers out there.) However, I have just created a new hash tag called #tech4ludds for any tweets that people want to associate with Tech for Luddites. I did it by posting this:
Starting a new hash tag for Tech for Luddites. Got a question for me or a great tech tip to share? Add this to your tweet. #tech4ludds
This way, I'm letting my followers know that this now exists, so they can add the hash tag to their own tweets if they think it's related to this blog somehow.
(I actually wanted to create a tag for t4l for brevity but there was already one tweet in existence using that tag, if you can believe it! It's in Dutch and has a link to the Netherlands Unicef site. A Google search leads me to believe it stands for Time for Learning. Probably a great program but still... Bummer.)
Now, if I search on #tech4ludds, I'll only find that first tweet I wrote. Fingers crossed it doesn't stay that way!
I hope the above clarifies the Twitter hash tag, which I know can be very confusing to new Twitterers. If you still have questions about it, please send me an e-mail at F1@TechForLuddites.com.