Hashtags Don’t Need To Trend

Ask people to define a “hashtag,” and you’ll hear “marketing or advertising tool” more than you should. After all, every billboard and banner has a hashtag, and every Web marketer will say a hashtag is worthless if not trending.

Here’s the simple Twitter definition of a hashtag: any word or phrase preceded by the # symbol. Click on it, and you get other tweets with the same keyword.

Twitter wisely leaves the rest to our imaginations. In the hands of others, a hashtag has therefore become so much more than a keyword—a conversation starter, a word game, a form for irony, self-commentary, and inner monologue, as well as a powerful advertising tool. The hashtag celebrated its tenth anniversary this past August 23rd.

Web marketer Chris Messina pitched the idea of a hashtag to Twitter founder Biz Stone in 2007, as the fledgling company struggled for a way to create groups of related Tweets without crashing their system. Messina’s solution altered the traditional “keyword” – irrevocably and for the better – with a stroke of the pound (#) symbol. Not since the @ has a key on the keyboard moved so quickly from useless to essential.

I use a hashtag to create my classroom. I teach completely online, outside of any managed learning systems, for the graduate interactive media program at Quinnipiac University. For seven years now, I’ve asked the question, can I create an authentic seminar conversation using only online networks and written words?

I can, and I do. In my class, a hashtag isn’t just an advertising tool. It’s a conversation tool.

The course number is 506. The name of my blog for my section of the course is The Interactive Voice. The hashtag my students use to identify and step into my classroom—#506iv—is like a room number. Moreover, it’s intentional gibberish. It’s only trending for the 18 to 30 of us. Trolls may bother us occasionally, but we’re not a big enough audience to interest them.

That’s the right reason to use Twitter: to find people who might add to your niche, argue with you, or teach you something new about it. Twitter doesn’t have to be anything more than a good, small conversation.

I like showing students a different way to use a hashtag. It takes the class a few weeks to understand their Tweets don’t have to be witty, controversial, or promotional; we’re just talking.

A “best practice” only represents the best we have for the moment. I want my students to develop their own practices and ideas, the kinds that start small conversations, in small rooms, and don’t trend nationally until it’s time.