Tue 24 October 2023


You Should Use Hashtags

I use hashtags. You should, too.

You might think, “But I don’t want my posts to come across as social media marketing spam.” Lots of people refrain from using hashtags for this reason. And perhaps many people do associate hashtags with social media spam. You might even have that impression yourself. That’s because most of the time we see hashtags is, well, in social media marketing posts. But the best way to change that impression is for all of us to start using hashtags in our posts in legitimate, non-spammy ways. In addition to combating hashtags’ undeserved stigma, using hashtags frequently will yield three other significant benefits:

  1. Hashtags empower your readers to filter posts according to their preferences.
  2. Hashtags make it easier for people to search for and find your posts.
  3. Adding hashtags makes it easier for folks to discover posts with those hashtags.

Let’s dig into these advantages in more detail.

Hashtags Enhance Post Filtering

The number one reason to include hashtags in your posts is to make it easy for your readers to curate their timelines via filtering. To illustrate, let’s use an example.

Alice follows Bob because Alice gets a lot of educational/entertainment value out of most of Bob’s posts. But Bob is also really into sportsball, a topic that Alice does not care about at all, and 20% of Bob’s posts are about sportsball. And yet, sometimes these latter posts do not actually contain the word “sportsball”. So Alice has two choices: (1) Tolerate the clutter in her timeline and waste time skipping past it, or (2) unfollow Bob entirely and enjoy a more sportsball-free timeline.

But if Bob did his best to always tag sportsball-related posts with “#sportsball”, Alice now gets a third choice — a better choice. Now she can create a mute filter that removes sportsball-tagged posts from her timeline. Instead of the limited all-or-nothing situation she faced before, now she can curate a better reading experience for herself.

And Bob benefits from this as well. In addition to being a better overall netizen by enabling readers to curate their timelines, Bob’s use of hashtags prevents some followers from leaving because they are seeing too many posts that are not interesting to them.

On a more personal level, I use hashtags precisely for this purpose. For anyone who chooses to follow me, I want to empower that person to filter out posts that are not of interest. This can be particularly useful on a temporary basis, by the way. If I am at a Django conference, I might be posting about it a lot that week. My Mastodon followers who need less post volume in their feed that week could go to Preferences → Filters → Add new filter, enter the relevant hashtag, and filter out posts with that hashtag with a one-week duration.

Depending on the social network and the app/client you’re using, you might be able to filter posts without hashtags, but the presence of hashtags definitely makes the process easier. So include hashtags in your posts in order to empower your readers curate their timeline content more easily.

Hashtags Facilitate Searching

Including hashtags in your posts makes it easier for people to search. For example, searching for “wine” might yield casual posts like “I think I had too much wine last night”, whereas searching for the hashtag “#wine” may be more likely to show posts about someone’s experience with a specific wine, links to excellent wineries, and other results that contain information may be more relevant and useful to you.

Moreover, some social networks such as Mastodon treat hashtag search in a completely different way than non-hashtag, “full-text” search. Mastodon only supports full-text searches of public posts from people who have explicitly opted into this feature, which in reality means that non-hashtag searches could yield very few results. Why? Some people may hesitate to opt into public post searches due to the potential for harassment, but the main reason most folks don’t enable this is that they don’t even know that this feature exists at all. After all, it’s not particularly easy to find. Assuming you are logged into Mastodon in your web browser, go to:

Preferences → Public profile → Privacy and reach → Include public posts in search results

Until more people enable this feature — and that day may never come — searching by hashtag is the best way to search. But that only works if more people include hashtags in their posts! And the best way to encourage that is to lead by example and normalize this very helpful behavior by including hashtags in your posts.

Hashtags Improve Discoverability

Including hashtags in your posts makes it easier for folks to see posts related to those hashtags. For example, Mastodon users can add featured hashtags to their profiles so readers can easily see other posts by the same author that contain those hashtags.

Moreover, readers can also follow hashtags in order to see more posts with that hashtag on a broader scale (that is, not just from a specific author).

Hashtags Give Readers Control

I use hashtags to empower readers to curate their timelines and decide what posts appear in them. For me, the other advantages described above are side benefits, but they are nonetheless nice side benefits to have.

Instead of asking myself: “Should I include any hashtags in this post?”

I ask myself: “Is there a reason not to include hashtags in this post?”

I encourage you to do the same. At least give it a try for a while and see how it feels for you.

So the next time you see a post from me with a handful of hashtags in it, you’ll know that I’m not doing it to get some kind of social reach boost juju. I’m not really doing for me at all. In the end, it’s an effort to make the experience better for everyone else. ✨