Facebook is reportedly working on introducing the hashtag as a way to group conversations. It’s another sign of the fiercely competitive battle for advertising dollars between Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is beginning to nip at Facebook’s heels, as the micro-blogging site attracts marketers hungry for real-time opportunities to connect with consumers. Hashtags were born on Twitter, and are a part of its history and association. Marketers have utilized hashtags to steer conversations, to gain awareness with trending hashtags, and to connect offline efforts to the digital space. Last month, Twitter reported that half of the 52 national TV commercials aired during the Super Bowl included a hashtag. Would Facebook Hashtags work?
Part of the appeal of the hashtag for marketers is the opportunity to position brands within conversations. The hashtag is no longer confined to the boundaries of Twitter anymore; it’s used as a way to organize photos on Instagram, and frequently thrown into posts on other social networks. Hashtags are bleeding into another way of short-form communication, allowing individuals to express themselves in the digital realm. This is why we have seen the rise of non-organizational hashtags, which sound more like undertones. People couldn’t possibly be organizing and finding content using the hashtags #toomuchfun #yolo or #soexcited. In that context, it’s not meant as an organizational tool, it’s evolved into a form of self-expression. People using hashtags for self-expression aren’t interested in searching for and finding other users sharing content that is also considered #soexcited. Expressional hashtags don’t connect people with similar interests. They’re just used to describe and label posts. It’s a one-way form of communication, as opposed to the organizational hashtag, which forms a complex, interconnected network of people who all hypothetically share a similar interest.
People already use the expressive form of hashtags on Facebook. This is generally tolerated, partially because of the ubiquity of hashtags. However, we’re already seeing some backlash from people saying that hashtags should be limited to Twitter, G+, and Instagram. People languish the way it visually clutters Facebook posts. Facebook is hypothetically attempting to implement hashtags in the organizational form. The functionality might make hashtags look slightly less messy on Facebook, but it may not operate as smoothly as on other networks. Facebook’s intention would be to gather all content around related topics or events and to index conversations around trending topics. This is where they may run into trouble.
Here’s why organizational hashtags on Facebook may fall flat on its face:
- Compiling all conversations around a specific topic requires public access to people’s posts. Many people have their Facebook accounts set to private. This means that only the people they have added as friends can see what they post. This is one of the biggest barriers to adding hashtags on Facebook, and one of the biggest differences between the way people use Twitter and Facebook. The reason why people use Facebook’s privacy settings is because they use it for purposes for which they would not want the public to see, particularly strangers or professional connections. This is where the network effect plays an important role in the success or failure of hashtag integration. The network effect says that the more people who use a product or service, the more valuable it becomes. If only a fraction of Facebook users have their content open to the public, the content is more limited in scope and is of less value, because it is from a limited audience. Hashtag integration depends on people having public accounts, which works well for Twitter, but not so much for Facebook.
- People are already weary of Facebook from a privacy standpoint. Facebook would have to gingerly approach users to see if they would want their content indexed. My guess is that people won’t be particularly motivated to make their content public in exchange for hashtag integration. It simply isn’t a compelling enough reason to expose your personal life to strangers, stalkers, pedophiles and potential employers. People spend enough time worrying about hiding their content from their Grandmas and figuring out how to draw the line with their coworkers, they don’t need the whole world to have a peephole into their life.
- Your Facebook identity can be very different from your public Twitter identity. Facebook is frequently used as a more casual social network, where people connect with their friends and family. The way people post tends to be more personal and the language is more colloquial. Meatier topics aren’t as common, with people shying away from stirring up conflict by presenting personal, political or religious values that may cause tension between close friends. Facebook is not viewed as a real-time knowledge database the way Twitter is; it has more of a just-for-fun approach to it. When brands connect with people on Facebook it’s often in a more entertainment style approach. To put it succinctly, hashtags may not be valuable in an entertainment context because #funny is probably too broad to be valuable.
- People don’t actively seek out content on Facebook. When you login to Facebook, you usually start by checking your notifications to see how people you’ve chosen to connect with have interacted with you lately. Then you may start scrolling through your newsfeed to see if your friends have posted anything interesting recently. Many people have already taken advantage of Facebook’s filtering features to only block out content from people they’re not as close with or less interested in, by eliminating particular individuals or lists of people from appearing in their newsfeed. The trend has been toward tighter filtering, to show users only the content that from people they actually care about. This is evidenced by Facebook’s list feature (possibly inspired by Twitter’s own list functionality), which allow people to file people into lists such as “Close Friends.” This lends to an experience that is focused on tighter-knit groups of people. Hashtags are the complete opposite; they focus conversations around as wide of an audience as possible, narrowed in scope only by topics which can still be general.
- People may have no interest in reading strangers’ Facebook posts, even around a specific category. This comes down to the way that people interact and consume content on Facebook. People usually don’t accept friend requests from people they don’t know because they don’t have any interest in connecting with strangers over Facebook. This suggests that people may not have any interest in reading strangers’ Facebook content either. People aren’t on Facebook to read the news the way they are for Twitter. They don’t go on it to stay up-to-date with whitepapers and studies from industry experts and for insights from professional connections. They’re on it for the memes, the funny pictures, the vacation albums, the YouTube hits, and to chat with their buddies.
- People might not even be interested in their own friends’ posts about a specific topic. Facebook already satisfies this interest in popular topics by grouping posts about the same thing in your newsfeed. This usually happens when multiple people have shared the same thing or when an event is coming up and everyone shares their plans, such as New Years Eve. Is there really a need for zeroing in on everyone’s conversations to see every person who has posted about what they are eating for lunch, their boredom, tonight’s sunset, the worldwide event we’re all aware of, or how excited everyone is that it’s Friday? It just doesn’t seem like it would provide added value to see the same repeating statuses over and over again. It’s already apparent that people have a limited capacity for repeat statuses, as highlighted by the sarcastic posts that mock the slew of redundant statuses everyone is sick of seeing.
It’s possible that Facebook tests this feature and determines it isn’t something they will use. It’s also possible that Facebook implements this feature, and receives positive or negative user feedback. People may not adopt the practice of using hashtags on Facebook, or even resist the introduction of them into their newsfeed. We may slowly adapt and change the way we use Facebook so that hashtags make more sense and integrate with its functionality. But if Facebook introduces hashtags as bait for marketers in an attempt to improve monetization at the expense of the user experience, they risk one their most valuable assets-a massive user base.
How do you think Facebook users would react to hashtag integration?