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Hashtags considered #harmful

A New York Times social media editor says they don’t attract an audience and “are aesthetically damaging.”

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The noble hashtag is cursed by a problem Yogi Berra could appreciate: Too many people use it, so no one goes there.

Presumably, most Twitter users use hashtags intending to add their tweet to a river of similar information and to expose their own thoughts to a wider, interested audience. Twitter itself markets the hashtag to those ends. But does that actually happen? It’s unlikely, especially for the most popular hashtags. There are many useful exceptions, but hashtags for big news stories are particularly vulnerable to mathematical futility.

According to Twitter, #SuperBowl was used 3 million times over about five hours on Super Bowl Sunday this year. Look at all those people who might be interested in our jokes about Beyonce! And yet getting any single person’s attention is just short of impossible, like a single Niagara droplet screaming for notice as it shoots down the falls.

Though there were peaks and valleys, 3 million tweets over five hours comes out to an average of 167 tweets per second. To say that someone would have to search for “#SuperBowl” in the split-second you sent it would actually be a little generous; assuming they’ll notice your tweet if it’s in the most recent 10 tweets, users would have a window of 1/17 of a second to find you.

Maybe this would be fine if 17 people were performing a search for #SuperBowl every second — then you’d perhaps have one extra reader! — but there’s no evidence that people are actually using the search tool in that way at anywhere near that frequency. In most searches, the quantity of tweets is overwhelming and the quality underwhelming. It’s worth questioning how many users find hashtag searches useful, but it’s hard to know, since Twitter doesn’t provide such data.

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Compounding the problem is how the tweets are displayed when you do perform a hashtag search. The default view will show you the “Top” tweets, which is based on a formula that favors tweets and users that have already gained a following. This is a smart effort by Twitter to deliver more relevant tweets, but it also decreases the likelihood that the average user will find a new audience. Average users are buried under another click, as you’d have to toggle over to “All” to find them.

It’s not just massive events that have the problem. If you lace your tweet with topical signifiers like #china, #food or #art, or of-the-moment news stories like #marchmadness or #prop8, you’re calculating that there will be a lot of people searching for it, but not so many using it that your tweet would be overwhelmed. It’s a narrow set of circumstances. When the goal is to increase your audience, the hashtag’s effectiveness depends entirely on how many people are searching for it, a number to which we have no access.

Additionally, some searches, like #socialmedia, return results from tweets that mention “social media” without the hashtag.

Does this mean the millions of Twitter users who deploy such hashtags to increase their reach are all wrong? Well…yes. We certainly have a history of carrying out myths in technology. Shaking a Polaroid picture didn’t make it develop any faster. Blowing on Nintendo cartridges didn’t help, either. We’ve all been told at some point that hashtags connect you to more people, and it’s been widely accepted as fact.

In some cases, they can indeed be useful. They’re great for gathering small groups of people; at a conference, there’s no better way to connect with other attendees and read brief summaries of sessions. When kept to a small scale, they can ably perform their service as a filter of relevant tweets (#EastVillage is more manageable than #NYC). They can be useful for subtext; we’ve all sent emails and text messages that should have had #sarcasm attached. The New York Times started the #snowku hashtag to gather snow-themed haikus during a February snowstorm.

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I’ve heard before: What’s the harm? Why not at least try to include #SuperBowl if every little bit helps? Somewhat of a fair point. Using a hashtag does no harm in the same way wood paneling does no harm to your station wagon, or a misspelled tattoo does no harm to your bicep.

Here’s where I’ll join the rest in unquantifiable hoodoo: I believe hashtags are aesthetically damaging. I believe a tweet free of hashtags is more pleasing to the eye, more easily consumed, and thus more likely to be retweeted (which is a proven way of growing your audience). I believe for every person who stumbles upon your tweet via hashtag, you’re likely turning off many more who are put off by hashtag overuse. We need not banish the hashtag, but let’s start putting more thought into when we’re using it.

Daniel Victor is a social media staff editor at The New York Times.

Photos by Quinn Dombrowski, Alan Levine, and Michael Coghlan used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/AlainnGanAinm ♥★Ms. Autumn★♥

    #so #many #hashtags #omg!

  • http://digitizedsociety.tumblr.com/ DigitizedSociety

    hash tags allow users to filter the content they are viewing to a topic that they are currently interested in. For example as an person who works in advertising I find it very helpful to search for #BrandBowl and #SuperAds. Hashtags can also be great for people that use 3rd part twitter apps, like TweetBot, that allow you to mute hashtags.

    I find a cluttered sidebar next to an article to be aesthetically damaging. I believe a clean minimal sidebar allows for the main content on the page to be more pleasing to the eye and more likely to be consumed.

    For example you have this great “Zen Mode” button hidden in the clutter of your sidebar. What is the point of hiding this great feature amongst all of the sidebar crap?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.singer Jen Singer

    Some communities use # for tweet chats, making it easier to follow the conversation by setting up a stream on a site like Hootsuite. For instance, I know of regular chats on postpartum depression and cancer that effectively use the hashtag. Same goes for conferences, allowing attendees (and people following along at home) to communicate and learn from sessions they couldn’t attend. It isn’t the hashtag that is useless. It is the way people misuse it. #savethe#

  • http://twitter.com/JimmyCLewis James Lewis

    Regardless of the research and aesthetic aspect, I don’t think I can give up #winning, #fail & #facepalm….I’ve seen them written with # signs so many times, they look odd without it.

  • Louis_the_S

    They’re useless for search, but that’s totally missing the point. I don’t think anybody, at any time, ever thought that any user would search for #superbowl to find tweets about the Superbowl. They use them for analytics, and a semi-permanent form of “Like”/”friend”.

    The biggest use is clearly analytics: the people promoting the Superbowl and its TV commercials can see who’s watching, and when, and what. They don’t care about any individual tweet, but they do care that there were 3 million, and what commercials (brands) they were talking about, and where they live. People running TV commercials would have killed for this kind of customer data 10 years ago, and the Superbowl are the most expensive TV commercials in the world.

    The other big use is to simulate Facebook’s permanence. If you “Like” or friend something on Facebook, it’s shown to all your friends — companies often use this as a “Follow us, and we’ll give you stuff, or enter you in a contest”. That’s hard to do on Twitter, where there’s no apparent record of when you follow/unfollow somebody, so they have you tweet their brand instead. It forces all your friends see that you said something about #Nike.

    Sure, hashtags are ugly, but they work around a feature the system lacks, intentionally or not. Retweets and pictures used to be really ugly, too, before Twitter added support for them.

    P.S., How can you seriously rail against something on the basis of it being not “pleasing to the eye”, yet use the tired “X considered harmful” form as the title for your article? People are reading this article despite the title (and after groaning to themselves), not because of it.

  • Louis_the_S

    That would only “remove the need for any hashtags” if the only use of hashtags was to indicate what city I was in. Does anybody search like that? I tried searching for my city name after a hashtag, and it was the most random, useless set of tweets I’ve ever seen.

    Logically, it makes no sense: if I only cared about physical proximity, I wouldn’t need Twitter (or any computer network) in the first place. I’d just ask the person next to me. The whole point of Twitter is to connect people by networks *other* than proximity.

  • Louis_the_S

    You say “I believe a tweet free of hashtags is more pleasing to the eye, more easily consumed, and thus more likely to be retweeted (which is a proven way of growing your audience)”.

    How do you explain having “TAGS: DANIEL VICTOR, HASHTAGS, SOCIAL MEDIA, TWITTER” on this page? Is that “pleasing to the eye”? Does that make your article “easier to consume”?

    To me, it seems rather ironic to have “TAGS: HASHTAGS” on an article saying we shouldn’t use hashtags.

  • bthdonohue

    Hey Louis,

    Sorry if I was unclear, but I was specifically talking about the need for hashtags for location-based discussions like the #nyc or #EastVillage tags mentioned in the article. As you mentioned tweets associated tags are often very random and not conducive to any sort of meaningful location-based discussion.

    There are instances where proximity in computer networks is important for sharing information (think a LAN, intranet, etc). Our mission with echo is to create a really simple communication channel for locations. We feel that whether you are in your hometown, a new city, a stadium, etc you should easily be able to communicate with the people at your current location.

    Twitter has become an incredible communication channel for the Internet and the pulse of the planet. With echo we want to create an incredible communication channel for locations to capture the pulse of your community.

    Does that make sense?

    Best,
    Brian

  • http://www.highfashionaveragewoman.com/ Tish Grier

    yes, but there can be specialized hashtags that are meaningless–such as the one that Pattie puts at the end of her post. Hashtags were meant to help decrease the noise to signal ratio on Twitter, and then became a form of self-expression (you could call them vanity hashstags.) And, as Franco Trimboli noted, hashtags are Twitter’s folksonomy, and as such aren’t always useful (folksonomy–as in “made by folks”) but my sense is that as more people use personal-expression hashtags, only more noise is made, and thus signal becomes, once again, drowned out. Or, important voices are lost because they are not tagged with the correct folksonomy.

    As far as aesthetics goes–their ugliness isn’t that important inasmuch as they take up too many freakin’ characters and can thus reduce the meaning of a Tweet (where more characters may have been helpful towards understanding meaning.) Personally, I hate them as much as the “via @nameyourpublication” that appears at the end of a link. It’s redundant and squanders characters, too.

  • Nick Smith

    The last paragraph tends to suggest that the title holds true in the author’s eyes at least.

  • http://twitter.com/RBonner_ Bob Bonner

    #ThisIsDumb

  • http://bartsz.com/ Bart

    I’ve kind of been seeing hashtags as not a Twitter thing anymore, besides a few exceptions like tweeting about an event (#sxsw). But they make a lot more sense on Instagram where I think people do actually tap on them to look at more photos of #flowers, whereas on Twitter they’re not as likely to want to read random tweets about a generic topic.

  • http://pattieruns.com Pattie Reaves

    Because their aesthetically damaging? He’s entitled to his opinion but I disagree. I’d also like to see data that a hashtag makes a tweet less likely to be retweeted.

  • http://twitter.com/joewozny Joe Wozny

    The author’s opinion has some good point when it comes to visibility – how can you be seen in a busy social stream? Funny though look at this article on what Facebook plans to do with hashtags. I say the # is not dead. Check out this article – http://goo.gl/Jr32t

    Joe Wozny
    Author of The Digital Dollar – Sustainable Strategies for Online Success

  • http://twitter.com/sierrajenks Sierra Jenkins

    Totally agree – I have found hashtags most useful for events and smaller groups.

  • Andrew

    As someone who studies Twitter (and by extension, hashtags), I have the completely opposite reaction to hashtags. I think they are an empowering use of metadata that allow users to join and follow a discussion. I love that they are right there in the message. What would another organizing principle look like? Maybe a top-down, enforced taxonomy of tweets?

    True, some hashtags explode to the point where a user can’t assimilate the data in real time, but as some of the other commenters have said: I don’t think most people go to hashtags to digest every item in a feed, but rather to get the gist of a topic.

    Also, when has metadata ever been about “aesthetics”? Library card catalogs weren’t very aesthetically pleasing, but we didn’t bury them under the floorboards because they blocked the quickest walking path to the general reading section. Hashtags are functional, and can be creative and entertaining as well.

  • Worth Banner

    The headline posits hashtags are harmful–the piece itself at most shows they are not always useful. So what?

  • http://twitter.com/alexloyal Alejandro A. Leal

    That hashtag does too have meaning… it’s ironic and, arguably, funny… the hashtag has both technical function and rhetorical meaning… hashtags are brilliant

  • YardSale

    Social media is such a young area that people who think they know about how to use it and what works usually have no idea or they end up changing their minds. Try to have social media “experts” explain Klout scores and “metrics” and it sounds like nothing but a word salad.

  • upsidedownpoint

    I completely disagree. Hashtags, when used properly, dramatically alter the meaning of a tweet.

  • upsidedownpoint

    While hashtags serve an organizing function, that isn’t their raison d’être. They are a core part of the internet’s lexicon, a new way of instantly commenting on what you just wrote by categorizing it. On the contrary, I find tweets with thoughtful hashtags to be much more enriching than tweets without.

    Where we can agree is on the uselessness of #art or #blue or other generic, meaningless drivel.

  • http://WebSavvyPR.com CathyWebSavvyPR

    I’m trying to find the study I just saw that said that 1-2 targeted hashtags DO increase retweets & reads, but that 3 hashtags decreases retweets and reads

  • http://WebSavvyPR.com CathyWebSavvyPR

    I’ve also been working with a small business coach who used to use the #SMB hashtag, Then at my suggestions switched to #SmallBiz and saw her interactions and retweets go up by about 10-15%. But she only uses one hashtag per tweet and not on every tweet.

  • http://WebSavvyPR.com CathyWebSavvyPR

    Great POV. I agree

  • Jude Calvillo

    Kind of a wanting argument :- Not only is Mr. Victor’s primary claim over “mathematical futility” solely focused on the upper end of a traditional marginal utility curve, but it also doesn’t at all present the minute mechanical costs of adding hashtags. Why wouldn’t it be worth it to a small, specialized tech vendor who can spare an extra minute or two, for example? – Worse still, his other claim, on the “aesthetics” of using hashtags is fully founded upon his personal preferences and not on information processing theory. Sure, a tweet loaded with hashtags probably would appear unappealing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not easily processed or that a 1-2 hashtag tweet would also be unappealing.

  • http://WebSavvyPR.com CathyWebSavvyPR

    Hi, @bydanielvictor. I found the infographic that includes info from a study that says: “Tweets with hashtags see 2x the engagement than those without” but that “Only 24% of tweets actually include hashtags,” and that there is a 21% increase in engagement when using 1-2 hashtags, but a 17% Decrease in engagement when more than two hashtags are used. Link: http://internetmedialabs.com/twinfographics-trust-and-tweeting-infographics/ – So while they may be ugly, or not work the way you wish, they ARE working for some Twitter users.

    I do agree that judicious use is the way to go. And for disasters/crises – they can be invaluable – I was able to get cell calls into my brother in Louisiana during a hurricane and give him useful info, that other people were tweeting about in his local town (he doesn’t use Twitter himself). I never would have found those tweets/that info if the users weren’t tagging them with the main storm hashtag and town/location hashtag. Thanks for a thought-provoking post though.

  • http://profiles.google.com/breeves2000 Ben Reeves

    Daniel, perhaps people don’t care about the “intended” use of hashtags as you’ve identified above. Honestly, I think that many people who use hashtags really don’t care about trending topics or keyword web analysis so they’re used for added emphasis or additional explanation when tone can’t be conveyed through simple text. If a particular keyword is used in a hashtag and it’s important to someone, it can be a great way to find commonality. It’s a cultural change in the way we use typed communication and it’s not limited to twitter. Business analytics and aesthetics be damned. The internet is ours to do with as we please. :-)

  • Rodger Kittcher

    Research suggests that tweets with hashtags have a higher engagement rate.
    http://www.linchpinseo.com/infographic-twitter-tweet-cheat-sheet

  • lucascott

    I would say that it is isn’t the Hashtag that is the issue, but overuse of it. One #hashtag is fine but if #every #word #is #a #tag #then #fail

  • http://jacmadsen.com/ Jacob Madsen

    It’s not a psychological causation so much as Retweeting requires characters, as does the hashtag. eventually you run out of ro
    #youSeeWhatIdidThere?

  • http://twitter.com/sheehanniganz Alexandra Sheehan

    I love using hash tags to participate in scheduled Twitter conversations. This is usually the only time I use a hash tag.

  • http://devnotes.posterous.com/ NotKatsu

    I think a valid question #whatisahashtag and #whathaveyougotagainsthashtags? I look at hashtags as if they were #ancientgreek rather than if they are contributors to a failed modern attempt at Zato coding, or as it has come to be termed, #zatocoding. Inother words, #hashtagsareacompressedlanguage is its own aesthetic and the heritage is long.

  • http://twitter.com/olsoweir George Archer

    I use key hashtags in conjunction with Tweetdeck to keep track of subjects for my job as a reporter/social media executive

  • lucascott

    You raise a good point. What really is the difference between tags, hashtags, keywords etc.

    There isn’t. They are all equally practical, impractical, ugly, no big deal. They all have possible uses, possible downsides

    This is not unlike the debates had over the years of cataloging books for libraries. In the beginning they struggled with how to list names, what subjects to put a book under, how detailed to get, etc.

    the flaws in those systems became more visible when computer based systems started and the lack of consistency reared its ugly head. Now we are seeing it in these tags

  • http://twitter.com/susiecambria Susie Cambria

    Amen! Using hashtags is invaluable when tracking the flow of information about a specific topic. I use all the time for such things as the DC budget (now using #dcfy14) since Mayor Gray released his proposed budget March 28.

    Following hashtags allows me to find new to me folks interested in the budget, gather information for clients, etc. Hashtags also help me share information using Storify and my blog (the latest example here:

    Mayor Gray’s FY 2014 proposed budget release Storified).

  • Carl Sammartino

    #whothehellisnancygracetalkingto

    that’s it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mangoduck.org Matt Evans

    I think Daniel Victor has the wrong target.

    Hashtags as a concept *do* increase order, findability, and exposure. They’re a topical, ambient version of the personally directed “@”. All his arguments against them are my arguments against Twitter as a whole, or any clumsily large content-oriented social service on the net. It’s a problem of scale. There’s too much cruft which gets lost in everyone else’s cruft. Content without indexing is useless, pointless, like a universe of atoms incapable of binding to each other. You can’t *find* anything, not that any of it would mean much alone. A stream of who gives a cruft. I’m still trying to grok Twitter as it is, and if it had no indexing whatsoever it may as well not exist. It would be StumbleTweet.

    Hashtags as a *feature*, as implemented on Twitter the *site*, may indeed suck. That’s the site’s shortcoming, not the users. Don’t blame patrons of a supermarket for limiting selection to only the top ten products. If you can blame them for anything it’s for not shopping someplace better. Twitter’s presentation of this wouldn’t be my first gripe, as I sit staring at a list of a half-dozen people I don’t exactly know going NOW WHAT.

    As for visual appeal, what do you want in 140 characters? I’m a major fan of elegant typography, but also elegant *function*. Without altering the “envelope”, meta-content is added by integrating it into the content itself — remember hashes can be words in a sentence. Every other markup language wishes it could do this. If hashes aren’t your style you don’t have to use them. Don’t tell me how or what to paint.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mangoduck.org Matt Evans

    I think Daniel Victor has the wrong target.

    Hashtags as a concept *do* increase order, findability, and exposure. They’re a topical, ambient version of the personally directed “@”. All his arguments against them are my arguments against Twitter as a whole, or any clumsily large content-oriented social service on the net. It’s a problem of scale. There’s too much cruft which gets lost in everyone else’s cruft. Content without indexing is useless, pointless, like a universe of atoms incapable of binding to each other. You can’t *find* anything, not that any of it would mean much alone. A stream of who gives a cruft. I’m still trying to grok Twitter as it is, and if it had no indexing whatsoever it may as well not exist. It would be StumbleTweet.

    Hashtags as a *feature*, as implemented on Twitter the *site*, may indeed suck. That’s the site’s shortcoming, not the users. Don’t blame patrons of a supermarket for limiting selection to only the top ten products. If you can blame them for anything it’s for not shopping someplace better. Twitter’s presentation of this wouldn’t be my first gripe, as I sit staring at a list of a half-dozen people I don’t exactly know going NOW WHAT.

    As for visual appeal, what do you want in 140 characters? I’m a major fan of elegant typography, but also elegant *function*. Without altering the “envelope”, meta-content is added by integrating it into the content itself, in other words without adding anything. (Remember hashes can be words in a sentence.) Every other markup language wishes it could do this. If hashes aren’t your style you don’t have to use them. Don’t tell me how or what to paint.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mangoduck.org Matt Evans

    This is my comment. Why did sharing it on FB tun it into “Guest”?

  • Summer Biggs

    Hashtags aren’t only meant for broadcast purposes. You don’t have to have the intent of gaining a following to use them, there are other ways to do that. More commonly, people use them to be a part of a larger conversation. That is what social media is all about, the engagement, the two-way communication. Also, if you have ever used TweetDeck to follow a particular hashtag, it is awesome seeing the tweets roll in. If it is for a larger event like the Superbowl, you definitely won’t see every single person’s tweet. But if it is a smaller event or a less common hashtag, it allows you to see everything going on and is an effective way to keep up with what’s happening.

  • http://twitter.com/DeadTreeEdition D.Eadward Tree

    Hashtags can be an effective tool for rallying people around a cause, but they can also rally the opposition. Google and other companies that backed a campaign making groundless “green” claims saw the hashtag “#paperless2013″ backfire when opponents launched a “hashtag takeover”: http://deadtreeedition.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-takeover-of-paperless-2013.html. Google eventually backed down, as Toshiba did last year when faced with a similar protest against #NoPrintDay.

  • http://twitter.com/FrederikFischer Frederik Fischer

    Tame.it makes sense of hashtags. Give it a try: http://www.tame.it

  • http://twitter.com/KimberlyErskine Kimberly Erskine

    I don’t think we should completely abandon hashtags, but rather use them in a more unique or creative manner. Hashtags can be really fun and a great way to interact with customers. The key is to create unique and easy to remember hashtags for customers to use. For example, rapper Sean Forbes uses “#deafandloud” frequently. This allows him to sort through tweets and find ones from fans. It is easy to remember and relatable to him since he is deaf and loud — deaf, yet loud in the sense that he is a rapper. Using hashtags is convenient for him and helps him to brand himself and make himself more memorable and approachable to his fans.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=15618847 Andrew Danger Pennebaker

    Hashtags aren’t intended to help millions find your tweet when you tweet. They’re intended to organize tweets by topic, and they work very well for that.

  • http://twitter.com/Swinrs Ryan Swindall

    I took away that “Cramming too many useless hashtags into your tweets is (bad)” not that hashtags themselves are harmful. Using # at events & tradeshows is a must . I can’t reproduce the issue that you had with Twitter’s mobile search. I am sure that it varies from # to # but I had no problem with #EnterpriseMobility or #mobile…

  • http://twitter.com/Swinrs Ryan Swindall

    Tweetbot is the way to go.

  • http://nozzl.com Steve Woodward

    I’m late to the discussion, but I wanted to add that too many journalists are using hashtags for only one reason: self-promotion rather than reporting. During the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, first responders quickly coalesced around the hashtag #eqjp. Mainstream news organizations, meanwhile, were using #japan or #earthquake to promote their headlines and didn’t discover #eqjp for 24 to 48 hours. They missed all the back-channel communications during a crucial period. The same thing happened with the Christchurch, N.Z., earthquake, otherwise known as #eqnz.

  • Angela T.

    I disagree that hashtags don’t work- they definitely work for me, specifically helping my searches out quite a bit on twitter. Hashtags also greatly improve the response to my Facebook page posts. However, I do think their assignations could be tweaked and improved and agree that the “less popular” (and often most useful) hashtags are “buried” under those given undue preference.

    It seems like there would be just one little adjustment the i-net hampsters could make in order to even out the odds a bit. For instance, there are topic tags and promotion tags, to start. Does it reason that for a news search targeting any term would return anyone’s promotional hashtags? Not really.

    Someone could really delve into the hashtag problem and improve it, rather than just trash the whole system. (Sounds like a world wish, doesn’t it?) It does bother me that every time I search for something, hashtag or not, it is practically always ranked and delivered according to- well, something that doesn’t have anything to do with me or my needs. As with the physical realm, the i-net has turned into this system where only the most padded players get their message out on top. It does not matter that most of us don’t need that message.

    “Oh yeah- the internet needs more work.”

  • BillPosters

    Isn’t this whole argument moot because Twitter now editorializes the hashtag results by default? If you want to ‘view all’ then you need to click a link. Otherwise, only posts by people who are popular or who you are following appear in the results for hashtag browsing. Which pretty much solves the reading and filtering issue for the mainstream use of hashtags. So I’m not sure I get the point of this article. I don’t use hashtags myself, hardly ever click on them, so perhaps there is some truth to their uselessness, but on the whole they must be useful to Twitter users.

  • http://heurist.com/ Carey G. Butler

    We must not forget that hashtags are not just for Search, they can be used for modeling.
    Hashtags are important to provide meta-content that allows for more dense meaning. Even novices intuit this functionality. Here’s an example.
    ——————————————————
    The picture shows what I meant.
    #Eagle #Predator #Mouse #Prey
    —————————————————–
    No one could infer the content of the picture, because none of the keywords indicate its contents. It may be acquired through context, but perhaps there is no context found.
    I know this example is simple and contrived, but it does convey my point to people who don’t understand Search or modeling.