What do you call this sign: #? If you’re a digital native (somebody who grew up when the Internet was already around), you’ll probably know it as the hashtag sign. If you’re older, you’ll probably refer to it as the number sign (sometimes also called pound sign), unless you’re into programming or music. In that case, you may read it as ‘sharp’, as in C#. (On a side note, on a regular basis, music teachers express their dismay that young pupils refer to the note C# as ‘C hashtag’, but that’s a different story).
So, what are these hashtags? What are they used for? And why should you care about them? We’ll find out in this article. In a follow-up article we’ll show you to use them to your advantage.
The Wikipedia defines a hashtag as “a type of metadata tag used on social networks such as Twitter and other microblogging services, allowing users to apply dynamic, user-generated tagging which makes it possible for others to easily find messages with a specific theme or content. Users create and use hashtags by placing the number sign or pound sign # usually in front of a word or unspaced phrase in a message. The hashtag may contain letters, digits, and underscores. Searching for that hashtag will yield each message that has been tagged with it. A hashtag archive is consequently collected into a single stream under the same hashtag.”
Hashtags were first used on Twitter in 2007, upon the suggestions of Chris Messina. Adding the #-sign at the front of a word (or group of words) turns it into a clickable, searchable keyword expression. You can search on any topic you like, like, e.g., #ArtificialIntelligence or #Divorce, and you’ll get a list of relevant recent posts on the topic. They are often used for current events, e.g., like the recent #NotreDameFire or #HongKongProtest. If you make a post on a specific topic, you can just add the relevant hashtag and people can easily find your post.
Because hashtags turned out to be so useful and easy to use, they quickly spread to other social media as well. These days, hashtags are used on all major social media platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. Apart from that, they’re now also used for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) purposes. When you publish an article on LinkedIn, e.g., it suggests and asks for tags. And if conversations on the Internet about a current event are big enough, you can even search for its hashtag on Google and get a live scrolling feed with recent posts. (Some platforms give you live information on which topics are ‘trending’, i.e. are most talked about on that platform).
When and why would you, as a lawyer, use hashtags? There are two sides to this. The first aspect of this is where you do a search on hashtags that others are using to find information. Were you aware that hashtags can be used for legal research, where you can find relevant articles on specific topics? You can even do it on a regular basis to stay informed about recent evolutions in your field of expertise or interest. The second aspect of this is where you start putting hashtags in your posts and articles so others can easily find what you have to say on the matter.
Why are people using hashtags? There are plenty of reasons. Here is a short, not exhaustive, overview:
- To comment and contribute to a global online conversation. Hashtags provide context and relevance.
- To stay in touch with your clients and see what they are talking about online (as well as find out what they may be saying about you!).
- For (legal) research purposes, where they can be used for content discovery and sorting.
- Hashtags are often used for humour and witty comments. #ButYouDontHaveToTakeMyWordForIt
- For Business & Marketing purposes, because they are a great way:
- To build and support your brand
- To monitor trends and your brand
- To Boost a marketing campaign
- To keep in touch with and engage your audience
Mind you, there are some rules to keep in mind when using hashtags. As the Wikipedia pointed out, a hashtag may contain only letters, digits, and underscores. That means “spaces are an absolute no-no. Even if your hashtag contains multiple words, group them all together. If you want to differentiate between words, use capitals instead (#BlueJasmine). Uppercase letters will not alter your search results, so searching for #BlueJasmine will yield the same results as #bluejasmine.” (Mashable). Also forbidden are punctuation marks, so commas, periods, exclamation points, question marks and apostrophes are out. The same applies to asterisks (*), ampersands (&) or any other special characters, all of which can’t be used either.
In a follow-up article, we’ll focus on how to best make use of hashtags.