No one really needs #hashtags on Facebook — but now we have them

This morning I emailed my sister a story about Google interns making $20,000 per summer with a photo of them playing in a ball pit. She responded: “#MoneyInABallPit.”

I’d be hard pressed to think of a seriously useful benefit to the hashtag. Hashtags are a cultural phenomenon that have bypassed their Twitter origins. They’re useful for conveying irony on the internet. They’re useful for conveying extreme irony in real life conversations. The hashtag was even deemed “Word of the Year” — it’s gone global. But on Wednesday, Facebook welcomed Twitter’s iconic feature with open arms, apparently not ironically:

“Hashtags are a first step in surfacing relevant and important public conversations. Over time our goal is to build out additional functionality for marketers including trending hashtags and new insights so that you can better understand how hashtags fit into your overall Facebook advertising strategies and drive your business objectives.”

Maybe back in the day, when Twitter’s search was even less effective than it is now, hashtags helped you discover topics you were interested in. They can occasionally be helpful if you’re looking to find tweets for a particular conference or event — I still check for a conference hashtag if I want tweets from that event. But often the terms are too broad to be useful (just try searching for #socialmedia and see what comes up), or a search for a simple non-hashtagged word would be just as effective — some of the funniest tweets from the event I’m attending today are not accompanied by the official hashtag.

New York Times social media staff editor Daniel Victor wrote a post for Nieman Lab recently where he argued that hashtags are functionally pretty worthless. He even argued that they’re aesthetically damaging, and that over-hashtagging makes your tweets hard to read:

“The noble hashtag is cursed by a problem Yogi Berra could appreciate: Too many people use it, so no one goes there. Presumably, most Twitter users use hashtags intending to add their tweet to a river of similar information and to expose their own thoughts to a wider, interested audience. Twitter itself markets the hashtag to those ends. But does that actually happen? It’s unlikely, especially for the most popular hashtags. There are many useful exceptions, but hashtags for big news stories are particularly vulnerable to mathematical futility.”

As Buzzfeed wrote last week, marketers have been credited or blamed with the rise of the promotional hashtag, and Twitter does sell ads around promoted hashtags, which brands are using. If big brands switched even some of their ad budgets from Twitter promoted hashtags to Facebook ads around hashtags, that could be a big deal for Facebook. But it’s possible that a lot of average people have hit hashtag fatigue.

So what does it mean that we have hashtags on Facebook now? It’s a nice validating moment for Twitter, that its iconic symbol has been adopted by the social network with a billion users. And it could help Facebook push to become more of a real-time news network, since hashtags are often associated with live events or activities. I doubt I’ll be doing many hashtag-based searches any time soon, but they sure are fun to write with:

hashtag response