Facebook Pushes Public Conversations with New Clickable Hashtags
Facebook has traditionally focused on connecting users who already know each other, but this week it shifted its focus to worldwide conversations organized around clickable hashtags. "Facebook is trying to eliminate one of Twitter's differentiators for advertisers," said analyst Greg Sterling. "Facebook doesn't want to be left behind in any social category online."
Social media websites including Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr have all adopted the "clickable hashtag" widely popularized by Twitter, and on Wednesday Facebook joined the proverbial club.
"To date, there has not been a simple way to see the larger view of what's happening or what people are talking about," explained Greg Lindley, a product manager at Facebook.
"To bring these conversations more to the forefront, we will be rolling out a series of features that surface some of the interesting discussions people are having about public events, people and topics," Lindley added. "As a first step, we are beginning to roll out hashtags on Facebook."
The Big Picture
The "#" hashtag symbol allows users to tag posts or pictures with relevant terms to place it into a larger conversational context, helping others find posts related to what they're interested in -- #Oscars or #NHLplayoffs, for example.
The tag adds the post in question to a public social conversation surrounding that topic, in other words, allowing users to click on the hashtag and read what other social media users are saying about it. Its use is especially popular when connecting users chattering about real-time events.
Users can still control the audience for their posts, however, including limiting them to a particular group of people, Facebook said.
The new feature will continue to roll out over the coming weeks.
Facebook did not respond to our request for further details.
Opening Up the Conversation
Facebook's decision to add clickable hashtags could help engender more dynamic and engaging conversations on its site, Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, told TechNewsWorld.
Facebook has long been considered the dominant player in the social media space, but it also typically connects only people who already know each other in real life. Twitter's use of hashtags, on the other hand, has supported users' tendency to follow more people they don't actually know in real life, opening up conversations among strangers worldwide.
That makes Twitter the site that many consumers head to for real-life updates during events that stimulate a national conversation, such as presidential debates, big sporting events or natural disasters. Many football fans turned to Twitter, for instance, when the lights went out during this year's Super Bowl, allowing several advertisers to post under hashtags like #BlackoutBowl, earning them new followers and page views.
"The Super Bowl is a great example of a hashtag event, and Twitter, not Facebook, owned the Super Bowl conversation," Tobin said. "Fewer page views means less ad revenue."
Facebook will be using the hashtag differently than Twitter does, though, which could mean that it won't catch on in the same way that it has on Twitter, suggested Internet marketing consultant Brian Carter.
"Privacy is still in effect," Carter told TechNewsWorld. "If you use a hashtag in a private post, non-friends won't see it. When the post isn't public, I doubt the hashtag will have much effect. The chances that many of your friends will use the same hashtag are low."
That more closed social interaction is what attracts some people to Facebook, however, making it unclear whether or not hashtags on Facebook will woo as much advertiser enthusiasm as the ones on Twitter do, noted Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence.
"Most interactions on Facebook are among a relatively limited social circle," Sterling told TechNewsWorld. "I suspect that most Facebook users will not take to hashtags in the immediate future."
Facebook didn't mention advertisers in its hashtag announcement. The company certainly understands, though, that Twitter's use of the hashtag allows it to control real-time conversations and better target consumers, said Sterling. Facebook wants to be able to convince its investors that it can do the same thing.
"Facebook is trying to eliminate one of Twitter's differentiators for advertisers," he pointed out. "During the Super Bowl, Twitter got much more attention and usage than Facebook, and Twitter is a more relevant source for breaking news. Facebook doesn't want to be left behind in any social category online."
Even if hashtags on Facebook aren't a runaway success for attracting advertisers, the company's willingness to explore new ways of fostering connections could indicate it is making product development a priority, Tobin suggested.
"Adding hashtags may also be a sign, hopefully, that Facebook's myopic focus on ad revenue over product development may be changing," Tobin added. "For marketers, as opposed to advertisers, working with Facebook has gotten frustrating because they have their hands out for ad revenue.
"Mobile functionality continues to be a huge problem for brands, and it seemingly has gotten no attention," Tobin concluded. "So I'm optimistic that hashtags are a sign that Facebook is returning some focus to their product."