Hashtags in the Hallway

I teach college writing in my spare time, and was listening to a colleague’s frustration at a faculty meeting on Friday. She has for years had students bring in articles they see in the newspaper or in magazines — but her students no longer read the newspaper or news magazines. If she assigns them to bring in articles on a given topic, they’ll all bring the first one or two offered by Google.

Twitter seems like the obvious solution, so I suggested it.

There was some uncertainty. My colleague had never used Twitter. A group of us took off for the nearest computer and had a little show and tell.

“It’s as though you arrived at a huge party and you know somebody’s talking about Shakespeare somewhere,” I said, “and you want to find that conversation. It’s too big a party for you to wander around and hope you find it, so you can search with a hashtag and have the whole conversation delivered to you.”

We did a few hashtag searches on current events and sure enough, we saw great links from law journals, news sites, blogs, and academic sources — exactly what you’d want for your class.

“So this is where the joke about hashtags comes from!” one of the group remarked.

Twitter is helpful in the classroom for many things, so I think my colleagues will be glad to have it in their toolboxes. But it was also very helpful for me to be reminded that the use of hashtags is not universal. For every person who uses them not just on Twitter or G+ but also in conversation, there is another person who has never quite gotten that joke.

So if hashtags are mystifying for you, here’s a break down of the basics:

  • Hashtags let you join a conversation that is already taking place.
  • They let you start a conversation and make it easy for others to join.
  • They make it easier for people looking for your topic to find you.

Twitter recommends using no more than two hashtags per tweet, and responds to suggestions that using hashtags will help promote your business with, “You don’t really get this hashtag thing, do you?”

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