Why Twitter Needs an Official #HashtagPolicy

Hasgtag logoOne of the main utilities I get out of Twitter is being able to follow conferences that I can’t attend, but am interested in, via TweetDeck. Last week I got my fill by following 140|The Twitter Conference, D: All Things Digital conference and Google I/O Developer Conference at the same time. While the real-time commentary from attendees and participants was exactly what I was looking for, the process I witnessed for getting to each information stream left something to be desired. In each instance, official feature support for hashtags, in some capacity, by Twitter could have led to a better, more seamless, user experience and, in the process, enhanced Twitter’s business opportunity around real-time search through metadata.

Hashtags, like @replies (originally) and retweets, are a community-driven feature on Twitter. It is used to track and organize keywords in tweets around abstract concepts, breaking news and planned events. Since hashtags can be created on an ad hoc basis there is no central repository for registering or finding out about what particular hashtags represent (Mashable does a good job of highlighting options for identifying and tracking hashtags in a recent article). This has led to process laziness by organizers in setting up hashtags for their events in advance or, in many cases, leaving it up to attendees to decide on how best to track events. The result is confusion leading up to, and inconsistencies during, a conference. The most glaring example of this last week was during the All Things Digital conference, which coincidentally enough had Twitter’s co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone as its opening guests.

Follow D: All Things Digital conferenceThis tweet was from the morning of the event. As you can see one of the conference hosts offered up 3 different hashtag options for interested followers, one of which had a completely different spelling. If you happened to be following #allthingsd you would have missed out on all the #d7 and #d7conference hashtag streams. By not proposing one “official” hashtag, a lot of trending topic momentum was lost by the conference and, as a result, potential followers of the event.

What is #140tc tweetOn the other end of the spectrum, The Twitter Conference did a great job of highlighting the hashtag for its event right on their website (in addition to incorporating a Twitter feed of #140tc-related tweets by which to follow the conference). While this did help #140tc become a top trending topic on Twitter, there was still an information gap for Twitter users who didn’t know about the event but had seen the hashtag trending (one of many examples shown above), as there wasn’t an easy way to determine what the hashtag stood for.

Clicking on the #140tc hashtag only generates a Twitter search page with other tweets using the same hashtag. It doesn’t provide any background or meaning to the keyword to help someone decide whether or not to follow the topic- unless it is described in a tweet. Another lost opportunity, through no fault of the conference organizers, for users to find something of interest on Twitter.

Finally, in the case of Google’s Developer Conference, Google did call out their own Twitter account for people to follow at the event (@googleio), but the actual attendee discussion stream appeared under the #io2009 hashtag (among others). Because there were a lot of topics covered at Google I/O, Twazzup was used to aggregate information on related hashtags for the event, which was very helpful- if you knew to look for it, as there was no link or mention of the Twazzup page on the conference website.

Now imagine a world where Twitter supported hashtagging as a native feature. Gone would be confusion over what hashtag to use or follow or what specific hashtags meant for planned events, as Twitter could allow event organizers to own or rent a hashtag (product idea number 301) and provide the associated metadata for their event as part of the registration process (TwitterDaddy.com here we come!). By going through a sign-up process, and paying to secure a hashtag, conferences will be more likely to promote their hashtag as part of their event marketing, which inevitably would help Twitter grow its audience and usage of its platform. Twitter might also consider leaving the hash sign for abstract concepts and breaking news and provide planned events with a new symbol (maybe the ampersand or asterisk) that would still be captured in trending topics- much like StockTwits uses the $ sign for discussions around the stock market.

For abstract concepts (my car broke down) and breaking news (the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court) Twitter could auto-suggest hashtags to users (based on similarly spelled trending hashtags for instance) to help group tweets on specific topics more effectively. This would not only help the trending velocity of topics, but provide a metadata layer to tweets. If Twitter could influence users to increase the use of hashtags in their tweets, maybe by taking hashtags out of the character limit, and enable better grouping of topic-related tweets, the search and discovery value from a user experience and monetization perspective would increase exponentially. Maybe then we might get over our intense fascination over Twitter’s business model.

[tweetmeme style=”compact” only_single=”false” source=”alexcalic”]

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