Social media is the quintessential paradox of modern society. It is a loaded term, which serves purposes professional (LinkedIn), informational (Twitter), and utterly frivolous (Vine). Businesses small and large are simultaneously intrigued and frightened by this medium, and who can blame them? Taco Bell and Domino’s are among the walking wounded for whom decorum-challenged employees have abused social media to deliver a steaming hot black eye.
The hashtag is one of the more misunderstood terms in social media, despite popping up everywhere from TV shows, to advertisements, to conferences. For the unitiated, the hashtag is a virtual bookmark of sorts that folks on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks use to denote the topic(s) of a post. It is good on both sides of the medium. Those seeking to maximize exposure or drive conversations use hashtags to steer users to their content. On the flip side, folks who wish to keep tabs on the latest developments in, ie, #Chicago, can use hashtags to separate the wheat from the chaff. In many respects, a tweet or photo without the requisite hashtag, after all, is much like the fabled tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.
In one of those “what took you so long” moments, Facebook finally rolled out hashtags on June 12, 2013, joining Twitter, LinkedIn, and its recent acquisition Instagram. Unfortunately, the Palo Alto social media giant made a few missteps in its rollout:
1. Mobile (“What is this “tablet” thing you speak of?”)
As of late June the feature is only enabled for the desktop version of Facebook. This is a big boo boo, especially in light of the lashing Facebook’s stock took early on for failing to adequately incorporate mobile considerations in its product strategy. Further, recent data reveal a steady decline in sales of the venerable PC, coinciding with a rapid rise for smartphones and tablets. Finally, Facebook is overlooking a key component of the real-time posting experience: Twitter users have long enjoyed exchanging ripostes and barbs while watching Mad Men, taking in a Cubs game, or checking out the latest noteworthy restaurant. More than likely they’ve done this on a Droid or iPhone, versus a ThinkPad or Macbook.
Granted, this is likely part of a phased approach to the rollout: we can consider the hashtag in soft launch currently, while developers test out the kinks and gain insights into usage patterns. However, Facebook should get this feature mobile-ready toute suite, given the rapid increase of users accessing the platform from mobile devices.
2. Connections (“Followers != Friends”)
Although often mentioned in the same breath, Facebook and Twitter differ greatly, primarily in their notion of connection. A Twitter user likely receives, reciprocates, and initiates handfuls of “follows” in any given day. Friend requests on Facebook are more infrequent and met with greater scrutiny: a user typically thinks twice (or at least, they should) before letting others into their virtual “inner sanctum,” given the personal nature of information shared, and Facebook’s byzantine privacy settings that threw even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s sister for a loop.
On Twitter, the hashtag will typically pull up a horde of users that make sense to connect with. On Facebook? Not so much: at best, the search results look like a duplication of the “Sponsored Ad” section, and at worst the ravings of the models from the American Voices feature in The Onion. While Facebook has been largely mum on the purpose of the hashtag, it will be a great tool for businesses looking to reel in captive audiences for their products and services much as they’ve done on Twitter.
3. Content (“My Eyes, My Eyes!”)
The beauty of Twitter lies in its elegant simplicity: a Twitter feed is uncluttered, with a neat listing of concise, bursts of content uniform in length. Facebook, on the other hand, is a visually chaotic grab bag of photos, verbose posts, videos, infomercials, and everything in between. Hence, while a hashtag search on Twitter provides a neat inventory of related content, the same process in Facebook yields an overwhelming on the senses littered with spammy promotions and irrelevant content from folks with whom you have zero connection.
Data consumed within Facebook is likely more within a private network, associated with significant events (birth of a nephew, graduation, an embarrassing video of the Harlem Shake). This content is valuable primarily of your association with the poster, and the fact that it is not blasted out to every Tom, Dick and Harold. On Twitter, on the other hand, the identity of the poster is of less import than the quality (pith, humor, salience) of the information posted. Facebook will have to figure out how to cater to advertisers seeking to engage with users, while not turning off those more interested in high quality content of less commercial value (ie, the latest Breaking Bad meme)
Hashing It All Out
Since its genesis in the hallowed dorms of Harvard nearly a decade ago, Facebook has been revered as a social media pioneer that changed (for better or worse) the way we interact with friends, family, and colleagues. However, the hashtag rollout smacks of a fumbled case of catch-up and me-tooism that is further confirmed by the shoehorning of video into its photo-sharing property Instagram. The hashtag has been effective on Twitter primarily because it’s been an integral part of the experience since the beginning, versus the Facebook version that feels like an awkward afterthought that is incongruous with the rest of the site.
Like Apple with the tablet, Facebook didn’t invent the social network but succeeded because of its superior execution over Friendster, Hi5, mySpace and other nearly defunct rivals. Similarly, although it made an unfashionably late, awkward entrance to the hashtag party, it has a real opportunity to be a game changer (especially among corporate Facebook advertisers) once it addresses the deficiencies in mobile, connection, and content.
Let’s hope Zuckerberg and his crew are up to the task.
About the author: Shelly Torsekar is a Chicagoland-based Internet Consultant with WSI Velocity. To learn more about how WSI Velocity can help you, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to have one of our consultants perform a competitive Internet Business Analysis (IBA) for your organization today.