Can I have your #?

For a good 24.5 years of my life, this symbol (#) meant “number,” or “pound sign,” and was associated with telephones or when one preferred to use one character instead of six to convey their meaning.

For the past few months, for me anyway, it has been given a new meaning- the dreaded “hashtag.”   It’s used in Twitter, and I was slightly frightened by this symbol, mostly because I was scared of using it incorrectly and tweeting something stupid where lots of people could see it.  However, after listening, watching how other people used it, and participating in my first Twitter “conversation” this past week, I have come to appreciate all the things that the # can do for me.

When I first joined Twitter, I did a lot of research, both on Twitter and off, to try and make sense of it all.  I learned a lot that way, but the # still kind of eluded me.  I wondered if a tweet I made with a # would show up in the feeds of everyone who was participating in that conversation?  If I, for example, joined a conversation about #Twilight, would everyone I knew see it?  Would my reputation as a mature nonprofit professional be damaged irrevocably?

I also looked at # conversations, and could never, ever, understand what they were saying.  So many trains of thought converging at once, they always seemed like a big jumble of ideas that weren’t very meaningful.

All this changed once I actually participated in a conversation on Twitter using the #.  My coworker, Michael, along with Andrea Snyder from the Grants Collection at the Enoch Pratt Library, conducted a workshop on using Web 2.0 for nonprofits.  I had a lot of work that day, so I wished Michael luck, but decided not to go.  Then, I found out that they were streaming video and tweeting right from the workshop, so I hopped on Twitter and went to their conversation.  I geared up my courage, added  #Pratt20 to my tweet, so it would be included on the page for everyone to see, and I didn’t look back.

The way the hashtags work is they bring all of the tweets with a particular # onto one page, where you can look at them all at once.  This allows people who don’t normally follow you, and who you don’t normally follow, to all see your tweets related to that #.  They won’t see everything you post, just those particular tweets.  This is the single best reason to use hashtags, because it gets your tweets out there, and lets people see what you are doing and thinking.  Not so useful if you are going to participate in conversations about which Twilight actor is more dreamy, but very useful if you are going to enter conversations related to your #nonprofit.

Another thing I learned from participating directly in the conversation, was that if you are in it, then you can understand what is going on.  It helped that I was watching the live video stream from the workshop, and so had a larger context to put the tweets into, but just like at a party, where you may have to juggle a few conversations at once, the # conversations bounce easily from one topic to another.  It’s much easier to glean information from them if you are in it while the conversation is happening, rather than trying to go back later and figure out what everyone was talking about.

This whole concept is still a bit scary, especially for speakers who now have to worry not only about reaching their audience who is physically in the room, but may have to contend with an audience from around the world participating on Twitter.  But it also can be a real advantage.  This blog post gives some good tips on how to deal when people are Tweeting through your presentation, and how to make it successful.

So use that #!  And let me know how it goes… I’m sure there are many more uses I haven’t even thought of yet.

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