As if Twitter wasn’t confusing enough for most people! There’s grammar, etiquette and a sophistication that belies the 140 character world of Tweets, RTs, @s, DMs and those prevalent-yet-mysterious hashtags. #Hashtags! What are they? Why use them?
In short: Hashtags create an organizing system among the 400 million+ tweets sent each day. Think of them as an decentralized and highly useful system in which millions of people can “file” information so that others looking for specific information can find it. Reasonable enough.
So what does this have to do with Howard County, or any community for that matter?
Most people’s “worlds” are very local. Despite interests in myriad hobbies, a fascination with international news or a focus on one’s professions humans live mostly in the world they themselves physically touch. And on another layer, the world that is touched/experienced by their social networks.
While involvement in local organizations, local politics and local affairs varies from person to person, local events are important to everyone at a physical survival level. And this is where Twitter and local hashtags becomes interesting and valuable.
Most people living in Columbia, Maryland, when adding the hashtag #Columbia to a tweet, think that’s a local hashtag. Yet Click on #Columbia in a Twitter search and compare that to #ColumbiaMD. You don’t even have to click: your brain can already see that the words and the search results will be very different when looked at through the stream of global tweets. The same is true for the ever-popular #HoCo hashtag. Around the time of homecoming, click on top images for #HoCo and note that suddenly #HoCo starts to mean homecoming dances and football games to teens throughout the U.S. (And there are a lot of teens on Twitter.)
This may not seem to be a big deal, right? So what if a hashtag we like to use in our community — #HoCo — gets flooded with #HoCo/homecoming-related tweets. Well, on one hand, yeah, so what. Yet what if in that same week there were a natural disaster in our neck of the woods and our community was accustomed to adding #HoCo to a Tweet to indicate Howard County, Maryland. Do you see the problem? We, as a community, would be sending info and tweets out that were meant for a local audience, yet our own messages would be most likely drowned out in a sea of teen’s tweets. And hashtags are all about organizing information inside on an unordered world, so what we do now, layers in and creates a system of intelligence and thoughtfulness that’s in place when we need it.
Think back on Hurricane Sandy. As the storm approached, most everyone was very interested in what was happening right outside their homes and in their communities, regardless of whether they gave a hoot the day prior about the Board of Education or a zoning change in the county. People live locally on a level of physical survival. As the local Twitter stream and tweets about the hurricane started coming in, people were suddenly looking for immediate and hyper-local information: information more immediate than any newspaper could produce and more local than the TV stations could deliver. Enter, social media, and more specifically Twitter and local hashtags.
But in those tweets, well-intentioned as they were, the difference between a tweet with the hashtag #Hurricane, or #Sandy, or #MDSandy or #HoCoSandy suddenly made a huge difference as to whether someone’s locally focused tweet was reaching the best possible audience (those for whom the information was relevant). And while many a tweet — mine own among them — are often frivolous, information about a super storm, road closings, facility closings, floods and such have more importance and a wider potential audience tuning in.
If you look at the two screen captures of tweets in this blog post, you’ll see the difference a local hashtag created, shared and used can make. The top image is some results for #HoCoSandy. Here you see tweets from the Columbia Patch, County Executive Ulman, Luke (a reporter at the Columbia Flier) and and other local people. The other screen capture — the one for #HurricaneSandy — has tweets from all over the place; none of them local or locally relevant that I can discern.
A significant challenge with a community’s emergency preparedness (and a government’s and local institutions’) is that the time to prepare for an emergency is before it happens. Nothing new there, right? So how, as a community, do we prepare now to be ready to disseminate information wisely and thoughtfully when the need is more dire? I offer that the answer is found in the developing the discipline (and eventually the habit) of using local hashtags.
Use them for the mundane. For the unimportant. For the fun and engaging. #HoCoSushi, #HoCoMoms, #HoCoFood. But use them. Use them for news, updates and announcements: #HoCoSchools, #HoCoDeals, #HoCoVote. Be playful. Be serious. Be thoughtful. Be wise. But use them.
With the help and input of some friends, bloggers and the Fire Department, plus the work I directed when leading CA’s communications and engagement team, I’ve created a first round compilation of local hashtags to use. There are a LOT of them listed here. There’s no requirement to use them, of course. And perhaps (and probably) there are better hashtags to use in many of the cases here. Perhaps the community-wide list someday will be five times larger; perhaps it will be chopped by a third. I don’t know what’s best. I do know that local hashtags are important and will become increasingly important, and the time to figure out how to use them well and wisely is now.
Take a look! And try them out. If you’ve yet to do so, I encourage you to follow @HoCoBlogs on Twitter.