Love them or hate them, one thing is certain: hashtags have expanded well beyond Twitter and are now omnipresent in our lives.
Movie previews end with them, reality shows encourage us to vote for winners with them, and every sports, entertainment, and political scandal spawns them.
Their popularity has only increased as they’ve spread beyond Twitter and onto most social platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Google+.
They’ve polarized voters, organized protesters, and unified concerned citizens around the world in the wake of global disaster.
Not bad for an organizational tool that Twitter co-founder Evan Williams once asserted was “too nerdy to go mainstream.”
Their abundance in advertising and broadcasting is understandable; if users aren’t given a hashtag to use, they will invariably create one themselves, possibly to the dismay of the brand or groups involved.
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Both campaigns backfired spectacularly when launched to the public.
Sometimes, though, a hashtag can tell you more about the person or organization who’s using it than it does about the event that prompted the tweet to begin with.
Whether it’s through lack of awareness of the hashtag’s true purpose or through sheer ignorance of the tone of the post, below are four things your hashtag may be saying about you, without you even realizing it.
1. You Don’t Really Grasp Current Events
Some of Twitter’s finest moments occur in times of emergency and political unrest, where people on the ground can share first hand news about what is happening during a natural disaster or amidst political unrest.
Designer Kenneth Cole was obviously aware of the civil unrest in Egypt’s capital city, but he just as obviously didn’t expect the backlash he received when he tweeted this from the company’s corporate account (note that “–KC” at the end of a post on that account was an indicator of a tweet directly from designer):
Not really learning from that, he followed up with this Tweet on his personal account in 2013:
2. You’re Careless and an Opportunist
DiGiorno Pizza also learned the hard way that leveraging a trending hashtag without first researching it can be disastrous.
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In September 2014, the hashtag #WhyIStayed began trending, as women opened up about their experiences with domestic violence in the wake of Ray Rice’s suspension from the Baltimore Ravens.
Amidst one of the most powerful grassroots Twitter campaigns in recent memory, one of DiGiorno’s social media team members tweeted out (and, soon after, deleted):
Long story short, DiGiorno faced swift backlash for making light of a serious topic.
The lesson here is that it always pays to look at the context of a hashtag before you use it.
To be fair, this is also a great example of how to deal with a social media gaffe, as DiGiorno’s team proceeded to quickly acknowledge the mistake and apologize profusely to those they offended, individually, for not researching the hashtag before using it.
3. You Don’t Understand How Privileged You Are
The first originated as a way to acknowledge that some of challenges we face in the U.S., for instance, technology lapses or traffic congestion, pale in comparison to the true human suffering that can occur in third world countries.
But what started as recognition of that fact while posting about one’s daily frustration rapidly deteriorated into an excuse to humblebrag.
Take Arianna Huffington’s much-maligned 2012 tweet from Davos, which I think we can all agree doesn’t represent the normal challenges most of us face on a day-to-day basis:
I think the issues with #WhiteGirlWasted can speak for themselves, but if not feel free to click the link to view a myriad of inappropriate posts by and about people who likely shouldn’t have access to alcohol.
4. You Have No Self Control
While somewhat less of a problem on Twitter (purely due to the character limit), some social sites enable a post to be accompanied by an onslaught of marginally relevant, if not completely irrelevant, hashtags with every post.
Some of the best examples of this are on Instagram, where a picture may speak a thousand words but can still be accompanied by dozens of hashtags.
Take this Instagram post (selected purely as the first one to show up when searching the hashtag #muscle) from account pump_100_percent, which boasts 30 hashtags ranging from the apropos #Fitness to the questionable #seeababes:
It's understandable that brands want to distribute content widely and promote to relevant audiences, but using so many hashtags, some of which don't event apply to that photo, seems more desperate than useful.
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And yes, hashtags serve a tremendously useful purpose, so useful that the word “hashtag” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014.
They enable us to organize and curate social content that we find valuable like no other tool. But in the end, it’s up to us to leverage them responsibly, or to say perhaps more to the world by our misuse than we originally intended.
Let the user beware.