The limit of hashtags as a way of sorting data on Twitter


Girton College Library

The real power of all the user-generated content and ideas that result from an increasing use of social media depends on our being able to find it. It’s no use to have millions upon millions of comments added each day if we can’t find them, or if we can’t sort for the ones most relevant to us at a particular moment.

This is, of course, not a new problem. Information from the earliest Medieval libraries to today’s online communities and social networks has needed sorting, categorising and cataloguing so that we  can find it successfully. Twitter users have a simple way of helping to sort data - the hashtag.

The concept is simple. A short code is added to the end of a Tweet to associate it with others - this then lets people search for everything on this  subject. So, for example, if you were tweeting at this weekend’s Glastonbury music festival in the UK then you could add the code #glastonbury to your tweet. If you wanted to search for what’s happening then you just need to search for everything with this code.

Hashtags are great for events and are a really effective way of associating related tweets with each other. But they are quite limited. As a means of sorting and cataloguing data they are very simple, perhaps too simple.

This became quite clear over the last couple of weeks with the use of the hashtag #iranelection. The tag was originally used by people in Iran who were tweeting updates about what was happening. Others in Iran were able to find out about  events, protests and developments by tracking these updates. The hashtag wasn’t the most used on Twitter but it was serving it’s purpose. Then it suddenly became popular, very popular. And that’s when you start to see the weaknesses of this way of organising information.

The #iranelection hashtag started being used by people not in Iran searching for information or merely expressing concern for or interest in what was happening in the country. The tweets from people on the ground were much less easy to find with hundreds of tweets from well wishers mixed in there. Information was much more difficult to find as the hashtag became more popular.

Whilst simple, the hashtag has limitations associated with this. One of the real challenges for Twitter (and indeed for many other social media sites) is finding ways to sort, file and catalogue information in a way that makes it easy for others to find. This is not easy - in part it depends on the fundamental structure of the site itself, and in part on the ways in which users use the site.

The ideal might be a way to filter content by type, by user information and by a series of categories. But this requires that you gather more profiling information than many of these sites do (or indeed than many users would want to give) and providing a way to categorise both at a parent and child level, which is complicated from an information architecture perspective. Resolving this is the real challenge of social media - finding a way to search for and discover information we want. It is this that will really show the benefits that social media can bring.

  • Social Media and #IranElection | bigMETHOD (
  • How to Search Twitter (
  • Twitter numbers up thanks to Iran (
  • Iran Twitter: Why The Movement Adopted This Medium (
  • Iran, Twitter and the value of new media (
  • ‘It’s Hot in Iran’ Is Latest Tech PR Gimmick (

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  1. Richard Stacy:

    You are right. There are many imperfections in the hashtag set-up. My biggest concern is in the area of cataloguing because Twitter currently only keeps a tag searchable for about 2 to 3 weeks. Hence my post about destroying, as well as making, history

  2. Simon:

    I see one of the ways people can monetize Twitter as finding a way to accurately filter the signal for the noise in hashtag searches - so much banality and echo clouds the occasional valuable comment

  3. Stephen C. Rose:

    Twitter search works for me. I now use it for both categories (eg: novels, author names, etc.) and breaking news.

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