Daily Archives: April 4, 2009

#hashtags on Twitter are like channels on cable TV

Readers of ReadWriteWeb no doubt appreciated the hashtag refresher contained in Sarah Perez’ post, “What Does that Hashtag Mean? Tagalus Tells You.” As growth in Twitter has exploded, conversations, interest and confusion over #hashtags have spiked as well. How could they not?

The problem is that for all of those new users, the # signs inserted into Tweets make no sense. David Pogue helped a lot of them when he tweeted a link to hashtag.org, where hashtags are defined as “a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets.”

They’re like tags on Flickr, only added inline to your post. Tagalus, the service Perez blogged about in her hashtag post, is a Web service that defines hashtags. Think of it as a hashtag dictionary.

Tagalus aside, here’s a perspective that may bring you another step towards Twittervana:

#hashtags are the channels that you can tune to whatever signal will make Twitter useful at a given time.

hashtag_screenshotTurn on, tune in, log out, to paraphrase a certain ’60s radical. Kevin Rose’s successful launch of WeFollow.com demonstrated that people will add classify their own accounts to particular channels in folksonomies. Each wants their product, service, brand or simply themselves to show up in search for that Twitter channel.

Smart brands have long since figured that out and monitor those channels like Webby hawks, adding hashtagged keywords to seed each discussion. Every user can tune Twitter into precisely the channel he or she likes. It’s easy.

You see, on twitter.com/search, we’re all equal*. Just tune in to the channel with the right hashtag.

Skeptics have rightly pointed out that many tweets are the ultimate in routine banality, expressing nothing but the author’s narcissism. Just watch the Twouble with Twitters for effective satire on that count. And for many users, they may be correct. Public access cable has had some real doozies on there, too, but that doesn’t make the medium – and most of what happens on it – trivial or useless. When you listen to Twitter using hashtags, however, it does’t matter if you have 174,456 followers, own a cable channel or play for the Suns. (Don’t worry, Shaq. Love to see you tweeting.) If someone is’t talking about the topic you’re searching for, it won’t matter. You’ve filtered them out.

If you like the Food Network, tune in to #foodie or #cooking. Or #recipe. If you’re a sports fan from New England and watch NESN, try #RedSox. Or try #NASCAR. Plenty of fans to go around. If you follow politics, you might have found #election interesting last November. You certainly will in 2010. True conservatives on Twitter (#TCOT) isn’t exactly like watching Fox News, though it’s a fair bet that there’s some crossover. President Obama’s name itself (#Obama) is a channel these days, especially during the “non-State of the Union” (#nsotu) earlier this year.

It’s safe to say that there are as many channels on Twitter as there are on cable. Not all of them have as much content, of course, but if Twitter continues to grow, each channel will fill with conversation. Twitter allows us all to create our very own channels and then seed them with even smaller categories.

Creative and clever users — of which there are no shortage — have created Twitter #channels from the ether. Check out #HARO, #journchat, #GNO or #FollowFriday for well-known examples. Others are sure to come, whether they’re generated by natural disasters (#earthquake), terrorist attacks (#Mumbai), acts of televised heroism (#flight1549), sports events (#KentuckyDerby) or national holidays (#July4).

Twitter, for the moment, is offering the best real-time search of all of these conversations. If you want a snapshot of what the world is talking about, just check what’s trending on search.twitter.com. Or, if the noise about whatever has the world’s focus is not of interest, slice the conversation into precisely the vertical topic you care about, whether it’s #Enterprise2.0, #Olympics or #butterflies. You’ll find both signal and, most likely, a conversation with a group of people who are interested in the same subject, often bearing news about the area.

Many brands have awoken to the fact that Twitter has become a pre-eminent market for conversations about them. Some, like @ComcastCares, have forged new customer service models. Others, like #Dell or #Zappos, are even profiting from their engagement. As many online analysts have noted, however, each channel can fill up with noise, rendering the listener unable to find that useful signal.

As Stacy Higginbotham quipped at GigaOm, Twitter “jumped the shark for digerati at SXSW” because the channel for the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin (#SXSW) became jammed with banal status updates, not information. She linked to Dan Terdiman’s story at CNET, where he wrote at length about Twitter saturation at SXSW.

The challenge posed for listeners at such events will be to tune their dials more carefully, either by creating groups in Tweetdeck or by refining Twitter’s advanced search capabilities. Connie Reece demonstrates how to do the latter in Twitter lessons from Mumbai.

Google’s success has shown that an audience that is searching for information, particularly about products, services or vendors, is in the best frame of mind to be advertised to for the given search term.

That could well be the Twitter bird’s golden egg. Some observers believe “real-time search is probably one of Twitter’s most valuable features.” There was endless speculation this past week that Google would buy Twitter, creating a “Twoogle,” precisely because of this real-time search capability.

Time will reveal how — or if — Twitter find a way to monetize those conversations. In the meantime, I need to go. There’s a good NCAA college basketball tournament game to tune in shortly at “UConn OR Michigan State.”

*Over the years, that’s proven not to be true: Twitter has an internal weighting system for users and tweets. Popular users and tweets show up at the top of search.

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