Hashtags are one of those things we see everywhere and aren’t often explained. It’s sort of assumed everyone knows how they work and when to use them.

That can make for some uncomfortable moments if you’re not totally clear on them but feel weird asking. Fear no more! I gotchu.

What are hashtags?

For many of us, hashtags (#) are a weird name for pound signs. But these days, pound signs are just about only used in phone menu systems. Kids these days only know the symbol as a hashtag. That’s a weird thought, right

At their core, hashtags are basically a search function.

If you tap on one when you’re in a social media platform, it takes you to other posts using that hashtag. It’s sort of like Google, but not at all like Google.

Hashtags differ from usernames. While hashtags use the pound sign, usernames use the at (@) symbol

I encourage you to head to Twitter or Instagram and start tapping on the hashtags you see in people’s posts. Especially if you’re a visual person.

How were hashtags created?

It was in 2007 and some tech folks in California led the way. They were frustrated with how noisy Twitter could be and hard a hard time sorting through what they wanted to see and what they didn’t. The pound sign is called a hash in a programming language, hence the hash part of hashtag.

They began using it themselves and encouraging other people to put the pound sign, or hash, in front of keywords, or tags – to help sort their information. After a couple of years, Twitter made it official and here we are a decade later. Hashtags are changing the world.

How do they work?

A hashtag is created when you type a pound sign followed by letters or numbers. Only letters and numbers. As soon as you add other characters or spaces, then the hashtag stops at the last letter or number used. This is an issue a lot of people experience with autocorrect because it likes to add proper punctuation like apostrophes. Autocorrect needs to mind it’s own damn business.

Any post that uses a hashtag will then be grouped together in a hashtag search. For example, let’s say you post a picture of your cats and type hashtag cats of Instagram in the caption. You, or any of your followers, can tap that hashtag in your caption and it will take you to other posts using that hashtag. With one click, you can see endless photos of adorable cats. It’s the best thing ever! I recommend that hashtag if you need a pick-me-up.

When are they used?

Hashtags are usually used in a few ways, ranging from being flippant or ironic to organizing information and events to getting the latest information in an emergency

On the lighter side, people sometimes use hashtags to make a joke or call out a specific emotion. A popular example is #blessed. Some people use it to mean they are feeling blessed and grateful, while others use it in a more sassy way. For example, someone may be ranting about a series of troubles they faced that day and they drop in hashtag blessed as a snarky quip.

Those types of uses aren’t really encouraging people to click that hashtag and read other #blessed posts. It’s more of a way to emphasize the word and using a new type of communication in a funny way.

Hashtags are often used to bring communities together, like people with a shared interest or hobby. #InstaScotland is a hashtag many people and organizations use for their gorgeous Scotland photos. It’s a way for people in Scotland to highlight the beautiful country and things to do, and a way for travelers to look for trip ideas.

For conferences and other kinds of events, hashtags can be a super useful tool to sort information. The Romance Writers of America promotes a hashtag for use throughout their annual conference. It’s a great way to identify other attendees on social media, see what’s happening at the event, and work out ways to possibly meet up with folks

Hashtags are also used in emergencies. With the major social media platforms having changed around so that their posts are no longer chronological by default, it can be difficult to get the latest updates in a crisis situation. Specifically on Twitter.

Let’s take Hurricane Florence as a recent example, if you searched #florence on Twitter, you’d see a steady stream of tweets about the hurricane. You can sort a hashtag search to see the latest tweets with that hashtag to help you get the most current information.

You could also begin reading those tweets to see if people are using other hashtags that maybe have more information.

What platforms are they used on?

Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all use hashtags in the sense that dropping in a pound signs makes a clickable (or tappable) link. But Instagram and Twitter really use them. Facebook just sort of allows them, but the platform isn’t structured to make them super functional.

So, why do we see hashtags used a lot on Facebook?

Most of the time, I bet you’re seeing them because someone has their Facebook account connected to their Instagram and/or Twitter account. So what they’re posting on Instagram or Twitter is showing up on Facebook, hashtags and all.

You can still use hashtags on Facebook, but most people aren’t. And the complex privacy settings on Facebook make it harder to see when those hashtags are used. With Twitter and Instagram, your account is either public or private. But with Facebook, there are endless options of privacy for your overall account and for each post.

How can you use them strategically?

You can use them to find your community of fellow writers. Check out hashtags like #amwriting or #amwritingromance or #amquerying to find other writers doing the same thing as you.

One of my favorite hashtags for a community of writers is #pitchwars. That hashtag corresponds with an amazing annual mentoring contest for writers. I met most of my critique partners through being active on that hashtag.

You can use hashtags to find readers. If you write a series of books where all the lead characters are crocheters, then you could talk about your books on social media and drop in a popular crochet hashtag or two. As long as you’re not spamming the hashtag and you make your post relevant to them, it’s an awesome way to get your books in front of folks interested in that topic.

You can also use hashtags to help readers talk about your books. Do you write in a series? Think about promoting a hashtag for that series and encourage your readers to post photos of them reading with the hashtag, or take pictures of things that remind them of your books. That can be a great way to build buzz and word of mouth marketing about your books.

Lastly, you can use hashtags to help with research. Think about that #instascotland example I used above. The books I write are set in Scotland and I’ve used that hashtag a lot as a way to get ideas for settings. It helps me in a pinch if I’m trying to describe something.

Or you can use a hashtag to connect with experts on a topic. If you write mystery and you’re trying to figure out some law enforcement procedures, you can find hashtags law enforcement professionals might use and you could ask your questions there. Or find people who are using the hashtag then send them a private message.

I hope you’re feeling more confident in your understanding and use of hashtags now.