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I didn’t mean to coin a hashtag, it just sort of happened.

I was on Twitter several weeks ago when old Internet acquaintance/popular comic book writer Kieron Gillen opined that, in the lead-up to rolling out his new project with frequent collaborator Jamie McKelvie, he was at a loss for an easy way to shorten the title. The Wicked & The Divine had recently been announced, and given the nature of online journalism, Gillen wanted an acronym for shorthand use in social media promotion.

Off the cuff, I ventured: “it’s WicDiv, obviously.” Gillen duly retweeted it, signifying that he liked the idea, if nothing else. While amused, I really thought nothing of it until a few weeks later, when Gillen & McKelvie started using #wicdiv on Twitter & Tumblr. Now, if you search for #wicdiv on search engine

As you can imagine, I’m a bit gobsmacked it’s taken a life of its own.

…but what are hashtags?

The use of hashtags on social media has become near-ubiquitous. Initially the domain of Twitter (given the restrictive character limit) and Instagram, hashtags have spread to Google+ & Facebook as a means of finding related posts on a given topic. Such is the impact of hashtags on social media conversation that a video featuring Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake was produced, parodying what a Twitter exchange may look like in real life.

Hashtags are typically deployed effectively on social media when a major news story breaks, or when a meme catches on. It’s been demonstrated that using hashtags on Twitter (albeit sparingly; no more than two is a good idea) results in higher engagement compared to tweeting without ‘em. As Steve Cooper recently outlined for Forbes:

Hashtags have become the social web’s way of filtering a conversation and gathering the masses. There’s a reason TV shows promote their own hashtags and that the leader of the free world uses them to rally conversations.

The corollary, though, is that abusing hashtags will make you look to the average Twitter user like you’re trying too hard. Hashtags are especially encouraged in Google+ posts as a means of finding content, both within the network itself and in wider Google searches. Indeed, the use of hashtags has spread out into the real world, with mixed results (Will.I.Am’s single from last year #thatPOWER being a case in point).

The beauty of hashtags is that they tend to escape into the wild sui generis, but this doesn’t stop companies trying to utilise hashtags to promote their products. A textbook example of having a hashtag go wrong was when McDonalds tried their #McDStories promotion. So, much like Twitter itself, hashtags – while useful – need to be implemented with care, lest they backfire.

Or, as I’ve outlined above, become something else entirely!

Further reading: A Scientific Guide to Hashtags [Buffer]

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