hashtags Hashtags are dying   heres how to save themHashtags are dying. In mid-2009 it’s getting difficult to see a point for them. What started as a helpful tool for tracking news from events has descended into a combination of misguided overuse and outright spammy manipulation.

There’s a good argument for abandoning hashtags altogether. Here’s why…

Hashtags are manipulated
A few weeks ago a minor sensation was caused when WYSIWYG website creation startup Squarespace started offering vouchers for iPhones in a draw for people who mentioned #squarespace in their tweets. The result? The company’s name trended highly for days and everyone’s Twitter stream was filled with mentions of the company.

An older rival to Squarespace in the easy website-building market, Moonfruit, has this week embarked on an identical campaign, except with actual MacBook Pros instead of vouchers as prizes. It’s great promotion for the companies concerned but for many, seeing these hashtags pepper the Twitter stream is an irritation. Hashtags.org currently lists #moonfruit as the most popular hashtag right now on Twitter, while #squarespace is the third most used hashtag this month.

While you might consider Squarespace and Moonfruit’s marketing tactics to be spam-like, they’re not the only ones at it. Besides forcing your brandname onto Twitter, the other way to abuse hashtags is to hijack them. Just a fortnight ago UK retailer Habitat caused controversy after they used popular hashtags related to the iPhone and the Iran election to promote their products.

Hashtags are misused
There seems to be a misguided assumption among some Twitterers that in order for their tweet to show up in searches it needs to be filled with hashtags. It’s not uncommon to see these people write things like “I just tried to use #iPhone #Tweetdeck but it kept #crashing. Back to #Tweetie I go”.

Besides being ugly, this peppering of hashtags through tweets is just pointless. Anyone monitoring Twitter for mentions of the keywords mentioned here will see this tweet regardless of unsightly hashes. A search for “Tweetdeck” will show up all mentions of both “Tweetdeck” and “#tweetdeck”. By using hashtags, all you’re doing is using up your 140 character limit pointlessly.

Saving the Hashtag
So, the Hashtag is in a poor state of health. Overused and abused, it’s easy to think that it’s on its last legs. Yet it may still be saved.

This week Twitter added a feature to its web interface that has been standard in a number of third party clients for a while now. Hashtags are now clickable and link through to a search for that term.

This is a reminder of why hashtags were so useful in the first place. Used in the right place they still make tracking events easy, especially when you use a unique hashtag. #Followfriday and #Iranelection work because they refer to specific events, namely a weekly Twitter user-recommendation tradition and a major political situation.

With nothing to replace them, we have little choice than to stick with Hashtags. We just need a little discipline in using them. So, lay off the unnecessary uses and the spammy promotions and we may get back to having a useful system again. As way of conclusion, here’s a quote from the Twitter Fan Wiki’s entry on Hashtags:

“Used sparingly and respectfully, hashtags can provide useful context and cues for recall, as well as increased utility for the track feature. Used excessively can cause annoyance, confusion or frustration, and may lead people to stop following you. It’s best to use hashtags explicitly when they’re going to add value, rather than on every word in an update.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to focus on your update first, and only if it quantitatively adds value, to append one-three hashtags. There are no hard and fast rules, but Twitter should continue to be about answering the simple question: “What are you doing” rather than “What tags apply to what you’re doing?””