Making a hash of it

So last week Facebook joined the hashtag party. I know, I know. Hundreds of blog posts and thousands of #annoying #spammy #test messages are already testament to this: what am I doing writing about something 10 days after it was announced when I could be adding to the Instagram vs Vine noise? Let’s pretend it’s because I like to take time to digest these new developments before throwing my opinions out into an uncaring world and not because it’s taken me over a week to work out why I’m so ambivalent to the launch of the Facebook hashtag.

Some people (mostly, in my Facebook feed, page owners and marketers) seem very happy about this hashtagging lark. Some people (mostly, in my Facebook feed, friends who don’t care about marketing and are already pretty sniffy about sponsored stories) seem not very happy about this and think they should stay on Twitter and Instagram. And some people (mostly, in my Facebook feed, parents) have no idea what a hashtag is, think Twitter is for narcissists and would give me that look that somehow conveys both pity and complete confusion if I suggested they download Instagram and put a few filters on their photos. But  it even has VIDEO now, parents!

Anyway. I am a page owner and marketer, so I should fall into the first hashtag happy category. And, really, I am happy. Mostly.

Reasons for page owners to be hashy:

  • Most other social networks use hashtags. It’s an easy win and will definitely help with general page content planning and specific marketing campaigns.
  • Adding hashtags to your Facebook posts makes them more discoverable, so public posts will be seen by more people and also help marketers discover what their audiences are talking about amongst themselves without a shoehorned brand-generated hashtag. (For this reason I’m particularly interested to see trending hashtags when that launches.)
  • Facebook hashtags don’t override your privacy settings, so any you add to your posts won’t be public unless you make them so. (If you’re looking for specific information on hashtags and privacy, Mari Smith has lots of great tips.)
  • The way hashtags are delivered is based on Facebook’s algorithims, so what you’ll see when you click on one it will be delivered  by relevance to you (this tip also via Mari Smith.)
  • Each Facebook hashtag has its own url, so you can see everything people are publically saying using that tag. (Just type #FacebookMarketing into the search box and you’ll see what I mean…)
  • And ultimately, it seems Facebook will use hashtags to better able brands to serve targeted ads.

All of this is good for page managers trying to get their messages out to potentially interested customers and consumers. And yet from a Facebook user’s point of view, it also sort of bothers me.

Not so hashy

Much has been made of Facebook adding hashtags in terms of competing with Twitter. In its blog post announcing the move, Facebook talked about the hundreds of millions of people (specifically Americans, of course) who use Facebook every day to take part in conversations about the things around them, from TV shows to sports to the Oscars. Putting hashtags into that mix will enable those conversations to be searchable, providing the status updates that use them are public. Bringing conversations to the “forefront,” Facebook says. So basically, like Twitter.

But I like the fact that Facebook is not Twitter. To me, on a personal use level, they offer different things. Twitter is for public conversations, taking part in those hashtagged TV conversations and conference debates, following celebrities and industry influencers who you’ll never meet in real life. By contrast, Facebook is for friends – and some acquaintances, admittedly – and for things that I like. I know it’s not private, but in relation to Twitter, it’s not public. I’m not even 100% happy about the fact that me liking a brand page’s update shows in some of my friends’ feeds because of that post’s settings. I’ll support the things I like, but I don’t necessarily want everyone in my feed to see me doing it. And yes, as a page owner, I know this is not helpful thinking.

Anyway, because of this, my settings mean that anything I hashtag in personal posts will only be visible to my friends, so unless I am hugely oversimplifying things, I won’t be part of that public Facebook conversation and probably, therefore, of very little use to the owners of pages I’m not already a fan of. I suppose hashtags could be useful to me in terms of seeing what my friend list is chatting on about and I’ll probably start using them in personal posts because I’m a weak digital creature of habit, but I don’t really think I need them.

And the final reason why I’m only mostly happy about all this? It’s what people actually do with hashtags. Will Facebook’s public conversation feed wind up like Twitter, where every second hashtag seems to lead back to One Direction? Or will it be more like Instagram, where posts rammed full of #likeforlike #instalike and #doubletap become the norm and we all end up hash-blinded? Have mercy on our eyes, hashers.

Because let’s be honest – apart from the most relentlessly loyal fandoms, most of the time those of us who use hashtags don’t do it because we want to talk about a brand or a product, even if we love a brand or a product. We use hashtags to make fun of things, to jump up on the bandwagon and throw our opinions in to that big Twitter cement mixer with everyone else’s, to swap Instagram likes, and to make little jokes at the end of our posts.

Who knows, when trending topics launches my ambivalence might disappear in a cloud of excitement (will they only show tagged trending topics? Or will organically most-used terms not driven by a hashtag also display? Will the top trends differ much to Twitter’s? What will it show us about the difference in demographics of Facebook users vs Tweeters? And lalalala so many questions…)

But until then… my feelings remain mixed.