Experienced Tweeters know to use hashtags to make it easier for others to follow a specific topic. A hashtag might be used for a general topic, such as #TV or #haiku. Professionals often hashtag conferences such as #ALAMW09 (American Library Association Midwinter Meeting 2009). I’ve seen a few professors encourage their students to get accounts and use a specific course hashtag.
If you were following an activity like #drumcorps today, you might have noticed a lengthy discussion regarding which hashtag corps members, fans and alums should use when they are Tweeting about this summer’s tour. The suggestions and the reasoning behind them were interesting. Some wanted more granularity (for instance #DCI09 or #DCA09) but some users preferred the more general term (#drumcorps) because it was more inclusive of all related activities. It was a revealing study in how people think about and organize information.
There were some good observations from drum corps Twitter users. One pointed out that hashtag searches only go back so far. Apparently, Twitter doesn’t archive this information forever. This Tweeter pointed out, why bother with more granular hashtags (like #DCI09, which refers to a specific drum corp organization and the competitive year) if they’re just going to disappear after a month anyway? This user rightly argued that it would be better to use hashtags that are most likely to be used by those new to Twitter, who don’t already know the conventional hashtag. For instance, #drumcorps and #DCI are intuitive choices for someone who doesn’t do a search (for more fun, try the advanced search) for available tags before posting.
The lack of hashtag archives on Twitter is a bit discouraging, although I certainly understand the limitations, seeing as this is a free service. The advanced search mentioned above does allow search by hashtag (when entering the term into the box, do NOT include the pound sign, the system does this automatically) and date range. Today, all of March’s Tweets hashtagged #drumcorps were available. Tweets before March were not. I haven’t looked into this issue in depth but it appears that hashtags.org does do some archiving, although it is unclear to what extent and how long they keep this information. For instance, a Twitter search for #ALAMW09 done today returned only one result, posted to Twitter 23 days ago. The same search in hashgag.org revealed Tweets dating from at least two months back.
Another user concern was character count. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, so there is some concern that the #drumcorps hashtag is too long. A shorter and logical choice for many drum corps fans is #DCI; however, this tag in use by another unrelated organization and/or activity and it leaves out the DCA contingency. Corps were aware of the #DCI confusion early fairly early on and settled for #drumcorps. Someone recently pointed out that #DCA is also used to refer to the airport (in fact, many of the three letter airport codes are hashtagged).
These drum corps enthusiasts, whether they know it or not, are doing something that librarians do daily: they are collaboratively establishing authority. Unlike the library world, consensus in the Twitterverse is more malleable. @TheCavaliers had the attitude, ‘we’ll use whatever #hashtag the community uses because we want our info to be heard by as many people as possible.’ This is certainly more flexible than the library outlook. It’s not often that LC subject headings are altered. Twitter is a far more responsive environment. It is a shame that libraries cannot be as accommodating to patrons. On the other hand, there is true hashtag MADNESS going on. There isn’t a centralized authority. There isn’t a drop down list of approved tags. No one changes all of the #drumcorp tags so that they automatically point to #drumcorps. I can’t be completely mindful at all times. Typos sometimes plague me and, I’m sure, others.
Twitter hashtags are yet another example of community-driven metadata. There’s already been plenty of talk about user-contributed metadata experiments in the library world. The once blogged about Library of Congress Commons on Flickr and OCLC WorldCat are a few examples. In both instances, users can tag items in order to (hopefully but not always) enrich searching and findability.
I’m always keeping an eye out for topics of this nature so there may be more to come. In the meantime, you can see what people on Twitter are talking about right now by seeing the most recent hashtags here. Lots of #EarthDay and #EarthTweet tags!