Crash tags

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 15, 2011

Chris Messina, the guy who started Twitter hashtags, proposed the use of hashtags on Google Plus earlier this evening.

There's some major cognitive dissonance going on here, seeing Twitter hashtags on Google Plus.

It really hits you over the head with how limiting (and, frankly, silly) Twitter is. I think in a few years people will look back at Twitter and feel like they were, well, duped in a way -- millions of grown men and women, adults, typing in obscure abbreviations and making up messy syntaxes just to fit a semi-arbitrary character limit; large, important companies falling over themselves to play the game and Build Their Brands around these tiny messages; opportunists positioning themselves as gurus of this Sophisticated New Communication Platform™.

It feels like the Twitter founders are sitting in a room somewhere, laughing at how they've gotten millions of otherwise-sane people to jump through these absurd hoops -- and that, deep down, even the most guru-y of the Social Media Gurus ask themselves from time to time, "Seriously, I'm doing this?"

Anyway, it feels like G+ should have something much more sophisticated and user-friendly.


Posted by Chris Messina on July 15, 2011, at 5:06 a.m.:

Fair criticism. However, I kind of disagree with you. I mean, we might look back and think Twitter was silly somehow (many people did and probably continue to, along with all of social networking) in the same way that we think rotary or landlind phones are silly ("what do you mean, you used to not be able to take your phone with you?!") but Twitter was and has been an important transitional medium that I think actually still has a very important use case (not unlike Instagram, which came later and put a limit on the size/dimensions of photos to better serve the mobile/on-the-go modality).

In my abbreviated telling of social networking history, first there was blogging, which is just email with a "send to everyone" feature (note: this is now a feature of G+ — yay!). Blogging was cool when there was like a fifty of them (or if you found a community of 50 that spoke to your interests) and they wrote tomes and it was great and people left comments and sometimes trackbacks and these indie publishers provided a critical service when the web didn't offer that much free content... but then we "democratized" social media and then EVERYONE could publish and started to do so with WordPress and then we had the rise of RSS readers and then, if you followed LOTS of blogs, you really only had time to read the subjects (at least I did).

Then Twitter came along and did two things: it turned a private communicate channel (SMS) into a public broadcast channel, AND it capitalized at the right time on the need to make communications more efficient (tweets are the zip files of the social web, I think once said). And they've been riding that ever since.

Hashtags themselves are transitional and maybe don't belong in the future. They were designed to allow for group collaboration inclusive of SMS. As smartphones with rich interfaces become the norm, we may no longer need typographic hacks to identify topical content. That said, autocategorization of content (which would be needed if you wanted to replace the purpose of hashtags at scale) is good, but it's not perfect yet. And, additionally, it only works retrospectively, rather than proactively — and so spontaneous memes have a hard time coming into existence is classification systems because they explode when people watch and imitate each other, not through any central indexer. And it's hard to autoclassify "alternateMovieTitles" just from the content of a post.

Anyway — I take your point and haven't concluded (personally) that hashtags are right for the medium of G+. But I do think that they serve a purpose, and came out of a transitional medium which still serves a purpose.

While we're on the subject, I'm curious why you posted here and not directly on Google+? ;)

Posted by Chris Lasher on July 15, 2011, at 5:18 a.m.:

Interesting post. I agree with most of your points. I think we do have to acknowledge, however, that hashtags arose because the Twitter community had a need to categorize their tweets, and Twitter did not provide a means by which to do this. The organic solution is ugly and stupid, but that's the consequence of not paying attention to the community as you grow your service. The terrible solution trumps no solution. Google+ is right on track in committing the same error.

You already have posted on how Google+ a complaint on how it doesn't allow you to categorize the content you broadcast. I think it's important to consider that if Google+ had incorporated tagging into the post system, they could also use the tagging to give your followers finer grained control over what they consume from you. Wouldn't the best thing be pushing Google+ to implement a good solution before the community creates and adopts a poor one?

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 15, 2011, at 5:37 a.m.:

Chris: Totally agree that hashtags (and Twitter itself) were important and transitional. And G+ wouldn't exist if it weren't for Twitter -- no question.

I've had this "we're being played" feeling about Twitter for a while, but it wasn't until you posted your G+ hashtag idea that these various thoughts clicked together for me. In Twitter land, hashtags make sense -- but seeing them in a well-designed system like Google Plus made me realize how flawed the *old* system was. It was all we did because it was all we knew, because it was all the system supported. That's not a dig on hashtags or the larger concept of categorization -- it's mostly a dig on Twitter.

BTW, I'm very much into the concept of categorizing posts (see my own post about it from a few days ago). I just think we're ready for a more approachable, more human way of doing it. The technology should bend to our will -- we shouldn't bend to the will of arbitrary technical decisions / 140-character limits.

Anyhow, thanks for the great comment. :-)

P.S. I posted here because I wanted the thought to live on its own (independent of a third-party site), but moreso that I couldn't figure out a way to write some thoughts on your post that themselves could be shared on G+. (Isn't it the case that, if I share your G+ post and add comments, people who share the post via me will end up sharing your original post without my comments?)

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 15, 2011, at 5:42 a.m.:

Chris: Agreed. It's not the fault of hashtags, or the community for creating them, it's the fault of the service. Great point.

It's still way early in the game for G+, so I don't know if I'd go so far as to say it's on track to commit the same error (it's just too early to tell).

Posted by Jean Jordaan on July 15, 2011, at 7:11 a.m.:

One thing I like about #hashtags is that I can type one in a Google Reader note, and it will show up functional when it's automatically tweeted. DItto when I tweet from the commandline, They also work in notes (grouping notes); if I share a note to twitter, the #hashtag remains functional.

Posted by Fredrik on July 15, 2011, at 3:50 p.m.:

I love Twitter - because it's never tl;dr.

Posted by Bart on July 15, 2011, at 4:55 p.m.:

It seems like what you're asking for is a blogging platform? In a way Google+ is already close to one, with friends/circles.

But that's not what Twitter is trying to do. They forced people to communicate in a new way and be creative about how they communicate by introducing their (albeit arbitrary) constraints. It's the difference between telling someone to "make something cool" and telling someone to "make something cool that can fit in a 2' x 2' x 2' box using only things you find in Central Park". Sure you'll get a lot of interesting results by leaving things open with the first one, but you'll get a lot of more specific kinds of interesting results with the second one. They're not mutually exclusive, just different.

Posted by Ed on July 15, 2011, at 5:48 p.m.:

"I think in a few years people will look back at Twitter and feel like they were, well, duped in a way -- millions of grown men and women, adults, typing in obscure abbreviations and making up messy syntaxes just to fit a semi-arbitrary character limit..."

So, text messaging has no utility, and we've all been duped.

I've helped;
to find a kidney for a child, friends find good jobs, homeless find housing,
15 year-old terminally ill cancer patient punch bucket list,
folks avoid tornadoes,
and #AmberAlert's have been aided, on Twitter.

And that is, as they say, just the tip of the iceberg.

Posted by Rory on July 15, 2011, at 6:38 p.m.:

Here's a theory I heard somewhere, the extra characters in Twitter, like @ and #, serve as extra grammatical markers to English text. Latin has the Vocative Case for words that are talked to someone, English now has a Vocative case with the @ sign. The # sign is a new grammatical case, the referentive case, it marks a word as the subject of a sentence. In the same way that we use CAPITALS to indicate shouting, and scare "quotes" to indicate sarcasm/something you don't believe in, we can now use @ to indicate someone We're talking to, and # to indicate something we are talking about

Posted by Joshua Schachter on July 15, 2011, at 6:47 p.m.:

Tagging is overrated, anyway.

Posted by Mike D. on July 15, 2011, at 8:24 p.m.:

Funny, I was just going to mention Josh! When Josh popularized tagging with Delicious, it was not really for search so much as for "personal memory extension". In other words, you didn't really tag a bookmark with things like "book, fiction, j-k-rowling" so that other people or machines could make use of it. You tagged it so you could personally remember it more easily... so you could theoretically use a tag like "abracadabra" because that helps you remember the link more than something more generic.

So... I kind of look at hashtags the same way. They are totally useless for what most people think of as "search". They only become useful when you try to create an original one. For instance, at a conference like An Event Apart where all of the attendees tag their tweets "#aeaseattle". This is useful so you can either query FOR all tweets coming from AEA Seattle (like if you are trying to attend the conference vicariously) or in my case, use Echofon's muting abilities to systematically MUTE all tweets containing that hashtag.

Posted by Kragen Javier Sitaker on July 15, 2011, at 8:35 p.m.:

I think hashtags are an important innovation in tagging, and they remain relevant. Once you've seen someone use one in a post and clicked on it, you know how to use them, and you can use them in web apps that don't support them directly.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 16, 2011, at 8 p.m.:

See also the great responses to this on Metafilter.

Posted by Johnnie Hougaard Nielsen on July 18, 2011, at 4:54 p.m.:

An elegant Google+ solution for many of the uses of hashtags might be some type of "public circles", which anyone can join.

A multi-topic writer could make one semi-public circle available for each topic, "see what I'm writing about, join if you want to follow".

Public circles could also be owner-less, like when some major event occurs. Google could display currently active public circles, possibly ranked by geolocation or language of the user (which may be on a smartphone), allowing anyone to jump in and contribute, or create a missing circle.

Posted by Jeremy Epstein on July 21, 2011, at 10:21 p.m.:

I agree, Twitter is silly. Which is exactly why I've refused to use it from the first day I heard about it. We haven't all been duped.

Comments have been turned off for this page.