The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook is "working on incorporating the hashtag" into its service. Facebook has not confirmed the report: A spokesperson told me simply, “We do not comment on rumor or speculation.” I don’t share that policy, so let's assume for the purposes of this post that the rumor is true. If so, a lot of people are going to come out and call Facebook stupid and out-of-touch. No one likes hashtags, right?
Right. But where you see hashtags, Facebook sees dollar signs. Like so many recent Facebook experiments and site changes, the hashtag idea sounds clunky when you think about it from the user's perspective, but rather ingenious when you consider it from a business perspective.
The WSJ so far offers only the briefest analysis. "By incorporating hashtags, Facebook would be able to quickly index conversations so that conversations can build around topics, as they do on Twitter," report Evelyn M. Rusli and Shira Ovide. "That would give users more reasons to stay logged onto the service and see more ads."
But even that is not quite right. The move isn’t about showing users more ads. It’s about showing them more-effective ads. And, as with almost anything Facebook does, it’s about gaining access to more and cleaner data about its users.
From the user’s perspective, Facebook hashtags are potentially useful, but far from optimal. At present, the site offers no way to sort posts by topic, which seems like a problem if it’s aiming to be "the best personalized newspaper." The mystery is why Facebook would do it by ripping off what's quite possibly the most annoying feature of its fast-growing rival, Twitter. Hashtags were once essential to the microblogging service, but I use Twitter for hours each day and I can hardly remember the last time I clicked on a hashtag. These days, the unironic use of hashtags on Twitter usually marks you as either a rookie, a "social media guru," or a writer for a crappy TV show.
The reason for hashtags' decline? Twitter came up with something better: an easy-to-use search function. Facebook’s decision to junk up its own service with an old IRC hack suggests that its own Graph Search isn’t ready for primetime. Try searching for "pope" and it suggests a page for "Popeye." Play by Graph Search's rules and search "Posts about the pope," and it will tell you that Graph Search doesn't yet support that kind of search.
That’s understandable, for several reasons. Facebook is still far bigger than Twitter, its posts are longer and more complex, and many of its users have turned on privacy settings that make their status updates inaccessible to the general public. But it’s also problematic from a business perspective, because advertisers love the ability that Twitter offers them to target people searching for a certain trending topic with timely, relevant ads. And users tend to find it less creepy to see a well-targeted ad when they’re searching for information on a certain topic than when they’re snooping around their ex’s Facebook profile.
Which brings us to data. Hashtags—like Graph Search, emoji, its latest Timeline redesign, and just about everything else Facebook does—are yet another a way to get users to tell Facebook more about what they like, what they’re doing, what they’re interested in, and what they’re searching for at any given moment. And in that respect, they may actually be superior to a decent search function, because they force the user to structure her own data. I'll explain.
When you write a Facebook post today, it’s likely to contain all sorts of information that could be useful to the site, but it’s liable to be difficult for even a finely honed algorithm to categorize. For instance, when my old friends from my hometown are watching a football game, they’ll dash off a status update that just says, “Oh no!”, and I’ll know they’re talking about the interception that our quarterback just threw—but Facebook won’t. But if they do the same thing and add a hashtag, Facebook will understand that they’re Buckeye fans, and it can pass that information on to advertisers. It can also start to track for those advertisers how many Buckeye fans are posting about the game each Saturday, what events in the game draw the biggest flurry of updates, and more.
If Facebook is copying Twitter’s hashtags, it isn’t because they’re “iconic,” in the WSJ’s words. It’s because they’re a goldmine.