hashtags vs. search

Hashtags vs. Search (aka “Track”)

This is a quick and dirty description of tags vs. search, to illuminate where they differ. It was crafted on very short notice to have at least something people could read prior to an upcoming Tweetchat about them. It's hardly a comprehensive effort, and will be improved soon.

Note: If you are unfamilar with any form of Hashtag, please read this general Introduction to Twitter Hashtags before proceeding.

What is the difference between a Hashtag and a Search term? There are 3 well established ways to find information (updates/tweets) in social network data streams.
  1. Timelines, where users simply follow updates by other users in their personal timeline, or a particular user's timeline.

  2. Search-strategies, sometimes called "Track" (which was the name of a search tool twitter once offered, but discontinued--for now).

    Here is a search for the word “obama”
    http://search.twitter.com/search?q=obama Different programs will handle search differently. The Twitter interface will “refresh” the results tally every 30 seconds, but the user must reload the page to see them. Other programs (TweetDeck, Seesmic, etc.) will reload automatically.

    It is important to realize that the search produces ANY mention of the word Obama, in any context. The results are not of Tweets where someone wanted to stress that “This update is directly related to Obama in a primary, not tangential way.”


  3. Hashtags, are a simple kind of meta-data that informally tags an update with an identifier. They can be connote a formal topic category, an organization, or a random, ad hoc topic. Since they must be indicated with a special symbol, the reader immediately understands that they define some channel, group or focus for the updates using it.

    Here is a search for”#obama.”

    http://search.twitter.com/search?q=#obama

    You will note the search results are much different that the raw search above. All the extraneous mentions of Obama are eliminated, and only those which the User felt were primarily regarding the issue of “Obama” were included.

    Hashtags are not meant to be concise, hierarchical organizers. They are rough approximations of a topical focus, just precise another to remove a lot of unwanted noise from the stream. Naturally, if someone wants that noise, they can simply use the first kind of search, and “turn on the fire hose,” thus enlarging their stream of results. People who like to “discover” new information (which takes some work), often use Search, but people who just want to be directed to what's immediate and “hot,” prefer to let other people tell them what matters (often by assigning the tags).

    The informality is both the blessing and the curse of Hashtags. How they are used, simply depends on the policies and discipline of the people and groups using them.


Hashtags have two core benefits

  1. The # symbol instruct interfaces (like Twitter,TweetDeck, etc.) to hyperlink the tag-word, so that users can simply click it to launch some type of search or feed window and see the matching results in that “stream.” Without this, the software has no way of knowing which words are random, and which are controlled tags that need hyperlinking.

  2. The # symbol clearly and unambiguously indicates to a reader that the word is some kind of channel identifier. The word “Progressives” might appear millions of times a day. But the tag #p4p or #p2 only a few thousand. If someone wants to plow through anything that progressives yields, fine. But most people will assume that people regularly trying to inform or engage others about good information will not hesitate to direct them using some kind of tag identifier.


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