I’ve been using Twitter for almost a year and though I’m not an expert by any means I have learned a lot about how it works. One of the features that I had a problem grasping was hashtags. It seems a bit weird at first but hashtags actually make it easier to follow conversations about particular topics.
What is a hashtag?
Have you ever read a Tweet that included the pound sign (#) followed by a word? Like #sxsw or #americanidol? These are hashtags. The pound sign is called a hash and the word that follows indicates a discussion topic (South by Southwest and American Idol in the examples here). When you put a hashtag in a Tweet you are marking that Tweet to be included in a group discussion on the topic mentioned in the tag. The idea of using hastags on Twitter was born from their use in IRC (which is a completely different topic).
How do I follow a discussion using hashtags?
There are several ways to follow a discussion by it’s hashtags but since they are not officially supported by Twitter you cannot follow them as if they were another Twitter user. That’s one of the reasons why newcomers find hashtags to be a hard concept to grasp. But the beauty of Twitter is that you can include hashtags in your Tweets and they get accepted like any other text. This makes them searchable from within the Twitter API like any other text.
In fact one way to follow hashtags on Twitter is by using Twitter’s own search tool to search on the hashtag you want to follow. This is the simplest way as long as you know the hashtag you want to follow. If you are using a Twitter client (as opposed to the website) the search tool will work similarly. A good Twitter client for following hashtags is TweetDeck which allows you to setup searches in their own columns and displays results in real time. Twhirl allows you to search on hashtags and integrates real time results in your regular feed. Both of these clients also support clicking on a hashtag in your Twitter feed to see other Tweets with that hashtag.
Another way to follow hashtags is to use hashtags.org. This website tracks hashtags used on Twitter in real time. The advantage of this website is that it includes a filter so you can see the newest or most popular hashtags. However a major disadvantage is that it only indexes hashtags entered by those following it on Twitter. (You can follow them here.) I prefer to use TweetDeck and Twhirl instead of hashtags.org.
How do I start using hashtags?
Hashtags are usually used for discussions related to events and topics that are current such as the two examples above. Odds are that if you want to comment on it then someone else already has created a hashtag. Search on one word variations of the hashtag you want to use to see if anyone else has used it (#idol, #americanidol, #ai, etc.). If noone else has used a hashtag for the subject then just start using your own. People are bound to follow along. In a case where you start a new hashtag you may want to Tweet that you’re doing so and ask others to follow along. “I’m using #americanidol to make fun of Seacrest. You should too!”