#Hashtags: Facebook's missing link to pop culture

The # symbol has become the key to connecting to people and events you care about on social media. It's also an obvious hole for Facebook.

For sale on Etsy: A custom-made sign that encourages wedding guests to hash tag their Instagram shots. The Pink Lantern/Etsy

Scan Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. Watch your favorite television show, or even listen to the radio, and you might notice that the biggest social network of them all is disconnected from pop culture -- at least when it comes to hash tags.

Hash tags are a form of expression that Facebook, like your grandparents, just can't understand. The social network appears motivated to change that, although a spokesperson wouldn't share details on when and how it will roll out hash tags.

However it shakes out, hash tags on Facebook are long overdue. Their presence could help Facebook lure young users -- something it struggles with -- and provide the missing link to so much that goes on across social media, from celeb gossip and breaking news to advertising offers and goofy memes.

On Facebook, hash tags in status updates are dead text. People still use them, particularly those who cross-post updates from Twitter or Instagram, but the tags are disconnected from the topics, news, or memes they reference.

"Hash tags are just like slang," said Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. And, just like slang, people use them to show that they belong to the group that's in the know.

From geek to chic

First used on Twitter in 2007, hash tags long ago crossed the geek chasm. Now, celebrities, teens, and everyone in between, use them for nuanced articulation.

Brandi Glanville, a polarizing but popular cast member on Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," uses hash tags to punctuate text with personality in her book, "Drinking and Tweeting." Mariah Carey's new hit single "#Beautiful" is, itself, a hash tag.

You can blame, or thank, Chris Messina for making hash tags part of our modern vocabulary. Messina, now a Google employee, is the developer who first proposed that people use the pound sign to group conversations on Twitter. He borrowed the practice from Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks, where people often used the # symbol to label groups and topics.

Some Twitter users started using hash tags to associate tweets with groups, conferences, events, and discussions. It took two years for Twitter, in July 2009, to hyperlink hash tags so that everyone could use them for quick searches, a move that took them beyond the geek set.

Soon after, Twitter's Trending Topics list turned hash-tagged words and phrases into viral meme makers.

Today, with its Promoted Trends advertising product, Twitter caters to advertisers who want to ride the popularity wave of hot topics in a way that Facebook can't. Facebook has watched this phenomenon play out for some time. The 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, for instance, drew the largest audience for any television broadcast in MTV's history, something that MTV and Twitter attribute in part to MTV's decision to promote #VMA. The push resulted in 10 million tweets.

Instagram, now owned by Facebook, also helped the hash tag trend along when it started to support them in January 2011. When it introduced them, the then-independent company admitted that it was taking the idea from Twitter. "Yes, they work similarly to Twitter hash tags," Instagram wrote in its blog post, "but reinvented from the perspective of an Instagram user."

Facebook may be have been holding itself back to avoid a similar, and more embarrassing, admission: that Twitter got it right. But now that Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube, and Twitter's Vine are all hash-tag-friendly zones, Facebook looks like a stubborn holdout ignorant of Internet culture.

Teen speak

The teens and tweens did their part as well.

At first, hash tags let young people use Twitter to participate in public conversations -- primarily about Justin Bieber. Getting Bieber visibility became a game, said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher for Microsoft who studies how young people use social media.

Teens rallied around hash tags and Bieber so forcefully that Twitter changed the algorithm behind Trending Topics in May 2010 to ensure that its hot-topic list wasn't always dedicated to the Biebs.

Hash tag play is still going strong for Twitter's teen audience, which takes pleasure in making topics, such as One Direction reference #carrotnight, trend. Twitter's Trending Topics have proved instrumental in nudging teens to participate in these memes, with hash tags acting as their main method of following news they care about.

"Most teens don't follow news aficionados and most new junkies don't follow teens," Boyd said. The only way that the two audiences ever cross paths is through the Trending Topics.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team are well aware that teens are using Twitter like mad. Pew Research just reported that almost one in four teens use Twitter, up from 16 percent in 2011. The same study noted that teens are expressing waning enthusiasm for Facebook.

On Instagram, too, teens use keyword tags to participate in memes, express themselves in profiles, and generate more "likes" for their photos. Facebook kills these creative tactics the minute hash-tagged Instagram photos land in your News Feed.

"Those teens who used sites like Twitter and Instagram reported feeling like they could better express themselves on these platforms," Pew said.

Tag, you're it

#ThrowbackThursday, also known as #tbt for short, is a widely popular hash tag meme on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr enjoyed by a mainstream audience. Every Thursday, people from all walks of life post old pictures of themselves or their favorite celebrities. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

You'd think that Facebook would have been at the forefront of this social media movement. It popularized tagging people in photos, after all, and made the geeky metadata option easy for the masses to adopt with a simple sell: tag each other in photos and help each other get seen.

Facebook clearly wants to be a bigger part of the public discourse around breaking news. The company even tweaked its structure when it introduced subscribers, now called "followers," to amplify the voice of people, personalities, and news organization who want to reach larger audiences.

Hash tags would help Facebook magnify related conversations happening across the social network, especially if, as newly discovered code hints, the social network lets people hover over a hash tag to get more information or see a stream of publicly shared status updates.

Missing more than cool

In the same vein as photo tags, hash tags would promote sharing on the social network and encourage members to come back more frequently and stick around.

There's also substantial revenue potential, as proved by Twitter which charges advertisers $200,000 per day for Promoted Trends and is expected to see its overall ad revenue climb from $582.8 million this to about $1 billion in 2014, according to eMarketer.

Hash tags would give Facebook a simple way to collect the public status updates of members who associate their posts with various subjects and improve the quality of results in Graph Search, its nascent search product.

Really though, Facebook, just needs to show youngsters that it can speak their language.

 

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