What Can Hashtags Tell Us?

The use of hashtags (#) in Twitter has become a staple communication element and this has followed in Google+ as well. That the hashtag has become a ubiquitous part of text communications style in social media is proved best perhaps by their now common use by major brands in advertising – instead of a major brand placing a web address in a TV or print ad, they may simply use a hashtag. But more than #Like or #Fail on a brand, what can hashtags really tell us? Turns out, quite a lot.

So we know hashtags are popular to define a location, emotion or subject matter for discussion. But they can provide a lot of “contextual information” beyond basic emotions or brands. As we conduct research across social media channels daily, we’ve gathered a library for the Natural Language Processing element of our software on an international scale. With over 45,000 hashtags, we’ve been able to dig a little deeper and gain some insights. We’ll share some key ones.

The Obvious Hashtags:

Location: As in #Halifax or #LAX or #YYC (Airport codes are quite commonly referenced by Twitter users)

Event: As in #SXSW11 for the South by SouthWest event. An event can be “at the moment” or ongoing/leading up to a specific time such as #Election2012 ¬†for the US Election (great guide here to those hashtags), or #TyElec for the recent election in Tunisia.

Brand: Most brands have hashtags associated with them, if the sentiment is negative or positive then it may be accompanied by Fail or Win.

Emotion: A very common one is #Fail and then the likes of #Happy or #Love or #Smile – these vary across the spectrum.

The Deeper Elements & Building Context

But hashtags can give us a far deeper set of insights, including in some instances that a “tweet” or message may carry multiple meanings and have several different target audiences. The use for example of French, Arabic and English in countries experiencing civil unrest are often aimed at foreign governments and news agencies as much as locals.

As an example, during the recent Tunisian election, it was common to include the hashtag “#zaba” which was a reference to the recently ousted president and a reminder to anyone viewing the tweet message that this is why they were having an election and as a badge of support. This is an element of context and goes to the next challenge – analysing hashtags. A single tweet or a group of tweets can start to add a deeper sense of “place” and context by indicating timing, immediate and surrounding locations, how an event is unfolding or provide an indicator of what is about to happen.

The Challenge of Analysing Hashtags

The obvious ones are easy such as #Fail or #Love, but hashtags can evolve and we often see “groupings”. Again to reference our research on Tunisia, the hashtag #Gonhim had 39 variations such as #Ghonim or #Ghanim…each referencing the same extremist preacher. With the Icelandic volcano a couple of years ago, the clever #ashtag was popular, but so was simply #volcano. Hashtags also tend to evolve very rapidly, adding or deleting characters or becoming entirely new ones.

For researchers this presents a number of challenges. For marketers it is fairly easy around brands. For those monitoring or researching civil society issues such as elections, civil actions (e.g. #Occupy or #OWS) or social commentary, it is vastly more complex. Multiple languages may be used, the speed of change and intensity will add another dynamic. Yet they they content a rich source of material and can lead to social media channels where a thread can be followed and deeper insight gained.