More and more people are covering live events and breaking news via Twitter — and usually there are several Twitter users covering the same event. Hashtags are a handy tool for pulling together such disparate coverage.
A hashtag is just a short character string preceded by a hash sign (#). This effectively tags your tweets — allowing people to easily find and aggregate tweets related to the event being covered.
If you’re live-tweeting, you’ll want to know and use an appropriate hashtag. Earlier I explained why it’s important to propose and promote an event hashtag well before the event starts. But where do event hashtags come from?…
“I’ve used hashtags a bunch, but never started one. If, by some chance, there are two events (or whatever) using the same hashtag, does everyone searching just see both until one changes, or is there some sort of registration or vetting process?”
Here’s my take on this…
Twitter is primarily an in-the-moment medium. Therefore, you probably don’t need to worry about duplicating event hashtags from weeks or months ago — unless discussion related to those hashtags is still happening (either right now, or within the last few days).
UPDATE: Also, Twitter hashtags are completely ad hoc. There’s no registration process — it’s nothing more than a convention. Just go for it and see what happens.
I’ve started a few event and breaking news hashtags, My strategy has been to devise a short, memorable character string that intuitively evokes the event name and the year or other time reference — and that, ideally, can be easily used as a word in a sentence.
Breaking news example: After the coal ash spill disaster in Harriman, TN on Dec. 21, I launched the hashtag #coalash. People are using this to share ongoing updates, views, resources, etc. related to this unfolding disaster.
Event example: For this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I proposed the hashtag #SEJ08. If it’s an ongoing event or collaboration, or something that recurs pretty frequently (like monthly or quarterly), you might want to omit the date reference.
Characters count in Twitter! That’s why #SEJ08 was a slightly more efficient hashtag than #SEJ2008 — and a far better hashtag than #roanoke (where the conference was held, but not really intuitive for this event) or #envirojourn2008 (just too damn long). And hashtags like #IS08 (for the Internet Summit, which happened yesterday in Chapel Hill, NC) was pretty much a perfect event hashtag.
Once you have an idea for which tag you want to use, then: Check whether anyone else is using it right now or recently. Search Hashtags.org and Twitter search for occurrences of your hashtag — and on Twitter search, search for it with and without the “#” sign. (That’s because lots of people won’t jump through the official Hashtags.org hoops and will just use the hashtag, perhaps forgetting the hash sign, or they may follow it via Twitter search without the hash sign.)
UPDATE: When history does matter: If you think it’s likely that people would be sharing more than a handful of photos or videos from the event, you might want to check that your proposed event tag (without the hash sign) doesn’t duplicate the tag for a former event. That’s because photo and video searches tend to be weighted more for relevance than timeliness.
Example: Choosing a hashtag
Imagine I’m live-tweeting an annual event called the Trinidad-American Summit. My first guess for a hashtag would be #TAS08. But wait! That happened to be the hashtag used for the Thin Air Summit — an event held a couple of weeks ago which had nothing to do with Carribbean issues.
Normally I wouldn’t care that another event had used the same hashtag, especially an event on such a different topic. However, there’s still ongoing Twitter discussion related to the Thin Air Summit — people were still posting about it yesterday. Therefore, if I started using that same hashtag for a new event, there probably would be confusion from people involved with either event. This, in turn, would mean I’d probably get a lot of angry @ replies on Twitter. Too much hassle.
So I start considering other possible hashtags. The next one that occurs to me is #TRAM08 — It’s short, memorable, and evokes TRinidad AMerican. (The “summit” part is superfluous, since the “08″ year reference is enough to imply that this is an event.)
Since people might also be sharing photos or links from this event, I also quickly search Flickr and Delicious for the tag TRAM08 (no hash sign). No one’s using this tag there either. Perfect!
After you’ve picked your hashtag
Once you find a good, short, intuitive hashtag, start promoting it right away — to your Twitter followers, on your blog, in your media-sharing accounts (like Delicious, Flickr, and YouTube). Also, if you’re running the event, make sure you promote the event hashtag on the Web site, in e-mailed materials to attendees and media, and everywhere.
From the moment you start promoting the hashtag, point to Wild Apricot’s intro to Twitter Hashtags — because plenty of potential live-tweeters won’t know what you’re talking about. This will encourage more people to use your hashtag in their tweets from the event.
Also, as soon as you pick your event hashtag, set up a Twitter search feed for it (character string only, not the hash sign). Monitor that feed so you can see who’s using it, and if any conflicts arise. Most importantly, if you see someone trying to use your hashtag for a different event or topic, send them an @ reply immediately to ask them to please choose a different hashtag.
Also, keep an eye out through whatever means possible to see if other people are using other hashtags to cover that event. If they have more momentum or got an earlier start than you, then adopt their tag. But chances are if you choose and promote your hashtag early, it’ll get adopted. Either way, by the time the event starts, there should be a tag that you can announce in sessions and gatherings, or share in conversation.
…Again, that’s just how I handle starting an event or breaking news hashtag. Other people probably have different approaches. I encourage you to add your thoughts in the comments below.