The Hashtag began with Twitter, who transformed a little used and poorly understood symbol into an everyday way of showcasing your emotions and sentiments. Twitter has been a major player in the social media space for at least four years now, and since their late blossoming, we have all become accustomed to using the symbol to tag our social posts. Over time, the hashtag has found its way on to Facebook by virtue of user cross-over, but Facebook have resolutely avoided properly developing it into their site architecture. However, in light of increasing competition from twitter, which Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently admitted is proving difficult to combat, Facebook have now copied Twitter to try and win back their users.
The rise of the hashtag
The hashtag is a huge part of the social experience on Twitter, and its integrated deep into the sites architecture. Like many of Twitters most popular features though, it’s one that has been developed on the back of the way that users actually engage with the site, as opposed to a solid vision from a founder.
Social media websites are funny old beasts. When they go into development and then launch in to ‘Beta’ (a form of live testing where the site is warning the user that the end experience may not yet be perfect) they are little more than empty shells. The site founders have a vision for how the site will be used, but often the reality is really quite different once a critical mass is hit. The one magic ingredient which truly hooks the users can often be hard to determine pre-launch. Twitter is a wonderful example of this.
Twitter was an iterative social site, meaning it pivoted and turned to reach the point that it’s at now. This is really quite different to Facebook, where the core user values have remained constant through its rise.
So when users started joining Twitter, the sites founders and early employees paid close attention to how people used the site and then developed new features to meet these needs. It’s a smart way to operate, and in Twitters case, it’s paying huge dividends.
The hash tag was one example of a user trait that got added to the site on the back of user invention. The Re-Tweet is another example. Twitter saw a lot of users writing “RT” and then re-posting another users message. The “RT” of course stands for “Re-Tweet” and before long the feature was added and the user base started to really go viral.
The hash tag has probably been the biggest driver behind Twitters emergence though. The simple ability to tag a post allowed users to emphasise with each other, and even more critically to share messages around specific events.
Twitter went big around South by South West (SxSW) in Austin, Texas. The only marketing that they did was to invest in screens showing Tweets from around the huge technology, music and movie festival. It was here that the hash tag is believed to have been born, because it allowed users to identify which talk they had attended. It therefore qualified what they said in a way that was management within the constraints of 140 characters.
Other social sites were quick to cotton on and integrate the hash tag deeply. Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram all have it integrated to differing levels. The Facebook owned Instagram is an especially heavy user, with their social experience largely dominated by the tagging of pictures with high volumes of hash tags.
Are Facebook trying to kill Twitter?
This is most likely a multifaceted decision by the social leaders, incorporating their desire to sell more ads and to boost engagement across the site. It’s been well documented, notably in the article linked in paragraph one, that critical early adopters have been leaving Facebook to join rival social networks like Twitter and Tumblr.
So what does ‘hashtag support’ really mean in the context of Facebook?
Essentially, it will act in a very similar way to Twitter, where hashtags are clickable. Clicking the tag will take you to a stream of people that are talking about that subject, prioritised by your friendships but incorporating the wider one billion user network.
In many ways, it’s a direct and aggressive affront on a core part of Twitter’s user experience. Until recently, the two social giants have coexisted quite nicely, with both being a huge source of traffic (and valuable members) for one another. This move could change that though, as the integration of hashtags into Facebook has made the two services noticeably more similar
Too little too late: Will it win back the ‘early adopters’?
Early adopters are the life blood of social sites. They flock to new experiences and drive their slower moving peers with them. What they don’t usually so is go back.
When a site goes stale, and the early adopters begin to leave, then its generally a sign that the site is in trouble. Despite its record breaking metrics and insane user engagement, Facebook is starting to tread these waters.
So whether the motivation here is advertising dollars or if they seriously do want to ‘kill Twitter’, it’s a big move by Facebook.