Hashtags - what they are and why you'd use them (Tseen Khoo)

#WombatWednesday screenshot (from Instagram)
#WombatWednesday screenshot (from Instagram)

This post about hashtags is dedicated to the recent participants of the various social media workshops that I've run! They've asked great questions and been very interested in knowing more about what hashtags are all about. 

I wrote about hashtags back in 2013 (omg - 2013!) on The Research Whisperer - Hashing it over - and, on re-reading that, I realised how quickly posts about social media can get stale. The post is still valuable but I thought another one was in order, one that was a bit more of the moment in 2020. 

What IS a hashtag? 

At the most basic level, a hashtag is a word, phrase, or acronym precede by '#' (the hash sign - North Americans tend to call this the 'pound' sign but I find that confusing because the pound sign to me signals British pounds: £). Karin Olafson from Hootsuite says: 

Think of hashtags as a way to connect social media content to a specific topic, event, theme or conversation. They also make it easier to discover posts around those specific topics, because hashtags aggregate all social media content with that same hashtag. (How to use hashtags)

For the most part, hashtags live most dynamically on Twitter and Instagram; LinkedIn can be useful on the hashtag front but I find that fewer people use them well there. Hashtags are on Facebook but, in my experience, they have never really taken off there and don't give the best results. 

Why would you use hashtags?

Hashtags are ideal to bring communities together in the wilds of social media. The proliferation of accounts and things to follow across the platforms can be very confusing, especially if you're starting off. Hashtags are one way to raise the value and coherence of the online spaces for you as you build a community around your work and yourself. 

For researchers, hashtags work really well for keywords in our fields so that you can search for information and accounts that appeal to you. 

TOPICS of interest: The crucial thing here is to make sure that you're using the version of the word or phrase that's most used by the conversations you find most interesting and valuable. This can take time as you get to know the communities that are there, and find the active users who are most useful for you. In addition, there can be several layers of community that you're dealing with. 

Let me walk you through some hashtag layers using the broad area of ecology/wildlife: 

  • #AustralianWildlife or #WildOz are broad interest areas that many people in the general community use to share their images of Australian critters. These tags are often used by researchers and conservation/environmental workers. 
  • Researchers often also use a narrower hashtag, one that may indicate a type of animal, or a locality (e.g. #marsupials or #CapeYork or #alpine or #BirdsOfPrey or #endangeredspecies)
  • They may well throw in even more narrow, filtering language to flag particular animals or aspects that they are interested in (e.g. #sugargliders or #shingleback or #bushfires)
So, a social media update - whether it's on Twitter, Instagram, or elsewhere - can have multiple hashtags that speak to different layers of people, as well as different groups entirely (to bring interests together). On Twitter, you can search for multiple hashtags (separated by commas) to get you more quickly to stuff that's of interest to you. For example, searching for "#wildoz, #possums" gets you to mostly Australian content about possums. 

EVENTS: There are special event hashtags used during conferences, tweetchats, livestreams, or major inter/national events (e.g. for the recent #ScienceWeek [Twitter]). Often, conference hashtags can indicate which year's event they are for, and would roll out logically the year after (e.g. #TASA2019 >> #TASA2020). 

TITLES of projects/shows/podcasts/movies: Hashtags are widely used for particular streams of entertainment content and can be as simple as the title of the movie or TV show. Podcasts often have their own hashtag if their creators are social media savvy (e.g. La Trobe University's own #ArchiveFever [Twitter]). Regular content that's weekly may have its own tag, too (e.g. #WombatWednesday [Instagram - highly recommended for your wellbeing]) .

Some RED-flavoured hashtags on Twitter that may be of interest: 

#LTUsuaw - We use this tag weekly to run a virtual 'shut up and write' (SUAW) session through Twitter. Find out more about it! We also use this tag whenever we're talking about the various SUAW groups and their activities around the university. 

#LTUWFH - This tag, coined by @laqwalsh on 16 March 2020, stands for 'La Trobe University work-from-home' and is used to bring together the La Trobe Uni community on Twitter to share their work-from-home lives. People post about their pets, work practices, dealing with kids/ work/ isolation, cooking and #isobaking (baking exploits while we're all physically distancing)...anything that speaks to our lives now as we work in a dispersed fashion. This hashtag is often seen in the wild alongside the #petsatlatrobe/#petsoflatrobe tags - more on those here.

#LTU3MT - Updates and livetweeting of the annual 3-Minute Thesis competition in which La Trobe University graduate researchers participate. The University finals are coming up 9 September, 2-4PM (date/time-save now - registrations open very soon!), and we'll be livetweeting it so watch out for this one! 

#LTUAcWriMo - Every year, across November, it's Academic Writing Month! We are big believers in this month and the importance of taking time to focus on your writing. There's always a lot going on and we've already been talking about wonderful things for this year! 

How do they start, and can you make up your own? 

Hashtags can have a bunch of ways they start that tend from the formal to the completely whimsical. A conference series, for example, is a fairly formal way that a hashtag may get established and sustained. Universities and other organisations, as another example, may have a set of 'official' hashtags that they use to signal certain things, whether they're events like public lectures or categories of content like alumni stories. 

A good example of a whimsical / spontaneous start to a hashtag is one already listed in this post - when Lou Walsh suggested #LTUWFH as a way to bring together conversations about work/home #COVIDlife (another popular hashtag across platforms right now...). 

The main point here is that yes, ANYONE can make up and start using a hashtag, but it depends on that tag being picked up and having consistent use along the way for it to stick. I often make up hashtags - mostly for fun and to have threads of topics across my Twitterfeed that I revisit every once in a while (see #KingRoop, for example, which is dedicated to my floofy cat). For these whimsical tags, regular followers and friends will be in the know (and get the in-jokes), others can just skim by. It's a good way to connect at different levels with the broad community we have on social media platforms. 


Dr Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in the RED team. You can find her on Twitter at @tseenster