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#Hashtags: home of the lame joke

Hashtags started out on Twitter as a useful way to tag topics, so others could search for and add to the conversation. Think of the times Twitter has come into its own, like the #Arabspring or the #londonriots. When hashtags are done well, they’re really useful. But that’s becoming increasingly rare. Mostly they’ve gone the way of emoticons: overused (as parodied by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake last week) and pretty lame.

Twitter has put together some basic tips to help people use hashtags better, but we don’t think they go anyway near far enough. Here’s what we’d add.

A We All Need Words # style guide:

#One hashtag at a time
Unless of course you’re writing an ironic joke about how much people overuse hashtags. Same with #longsentencesstucktogether. And hashtagging #random or #incidental #words for #no good reason, well, that’s right out.

#Keep hashtags specific
In the weird world of marketing, people tag things like #branding, #copywriting and #storytelling. No-one’s going to search for those keywords. And how can anyone join a meaningful conversation around a topic as generic as that? Generic hashtags just get lost in a sea of same-y tweets (they’re also a sign that the tweet is generic too.)

#Don’t dictate the topic
In 2012 X Factor tried to use hashtags to steer audience conversations. So when Lucy Spraggan sang her song about getting drunk, ITV put the hashtag #Beerfear on screen. Some people joined in, most railed against it. The point, though, is that if you’re a TV show or a big brand people will start better conversations than you. There’s evidence from the US version of the show that keeping it simple: ‘#xfactor’ is the way to go. And beware that the more you try to control the response, the more people will want to rebel against it.

When Waitrose tweeted: Finish the sentence: “I shop at Waitrose because ___ #WaitroseReasons, the answers were along the lines of ‘I shop at Waitrose because the toilet paper is made from 24ct gold thread’.

#Keep it short
A good hashtag says a lot in a few words – so people have enough characters to add their twopenneth. #AskObama neatly gets people to phrase what they want to say as a question, not a rambling statement.

#Hashtag the joke, not the punchline
Twitter is at its best when people club together to satirise or subvert something. So when the Daily Mail wrote their headline about Ed Miliband’s dad being ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’, people started coming up with their own lines using the tag #mydadhatedbritain, eg:

My Dad once punched a morris dancer at a real ale festival. #mydadhatedbritain

But it’s just as easy to ruin a joke by repeating the punchline in a hashtag or by over-explaining it like @rickygervais does here [sic]:

I’m dressed as Hitler & Twerking like a pedophile because Frank Sinatra was my dad and he hated Britain. #NewsRoundUp

#Is that meme really going to catch on?
Like ironing? Good for you. But if you tag a tweet with a boring hashtag like #autumnironing, don’t expect lots of people to join in.

#Don’t hashtag feelings
Especially if they’re ultra-positive. If you tag your tweets with words like #sunshine, #goodtimes and #love, you’re either a rubbish brand trying to flog something or deep down you’re really unhappy.

#Don’t hashtag days of the week
A la #onedaytoweekend, #hatemondays, #happyfriday, happy #wednesday. We know what day it is.

#Or #FF
Everyone stopped doing that many Fridays ago.

Don’t hashtag meaningless quotes at conferences
Here’s a tweet taken from the ‘This is not an insight’ tumblr:

Brands are beginning to recognise the value of #hashtags #smwfreshlypimped #SMWLDN.

Tweeting nothing quotes out of context with the event’s hashtag is the Twitter equivalent of writing down every last thing in a lecture because you can’t work out what is (or isn’t) important. Except in this case it’s worse because you’re cluttering up your followers’ timelines too.

#Don’t write print headlines like tweets
When Itsu started using hashtags by their tills for no good reason, we knew the hashtag epidemic had got out of control.


#Don’t Hashtag stage directions
And by this we mean anything that a lousy playwright would feel the need to add in because the dialogue was so bad. Like this:

Uh oh, the woman I just wrote about just walked in. #awkward
I just got my Glastonbury tickets!!! #excited

This is the most common abuse of hashtags. They’re like internet acronyms (LOL!) or emoticons ;=) but with a # in front of them.

It’s the beginning of the end.