What is the point of a hashtag? According to Chris Messina, the first Twitter user to employ the hashtag (#), it was just a way to help make Twitter more easily searchable for his group’s BarCamp event in 2007.¹ That functionality does not seem to have changed, but I would argue that it has expanded. Now, hashtags are used more broadly to connect people around events, movements, feelings, popular culture, and marketing campaigns. These repurposed pieces of punctuations are necessary to help Twitter users dig through their congested feeds for conversations that they want to be a part of. With well over 500 million new tweets every day, is it even possible to reach a specific audience?² Hashtags are certainly one strategy for like-minded individuals to find each other on Twitter and join in a shared conversation.
The earliest occurrence of this hashtag on Twitter is January 31, 2013. HyperStudio, a laboratory for Digital Humanities that explores “the potential of new media technologies for the enhancement of education and research in the humanities” at MIT, asked participants at their Annotation Studio Workshop to use #AnnotateMIT as they tweeted about the event.³ The HyperStudio held this Annotation Studio Workshop to invite humanities students, scholars, and educators to explore digital annotation tools that are widely available.4 During and in the days following the HyperStudio Annotation Studio Workshop 57 tweets went out with the hashtag “#AnnotateMIT.” Over the next two years, the group continued to use the hashtag to distribute information and enable conversations to take place around their events. My analysis here looks closely at one small section of this hashtag’s over two-year life. On January 23, 2015, HyperStudio hosted Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop, and it spurred over 400 tweets during and immediately following the event.
Analyzing #AnnotateMIT at Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop
While a comprehensive analysis of the #AnnotateMIT hashtag is outside the scope of this project, a close analysis of the hashtag during the Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop will provide a sample of data from which I can extrapolate some conclusions and make some suggestions about future strategy for anyone considering organizing this kind of event. To begin, I used Martin Hawksey’s TAGS 6.0 spreadsheet to collect tweets from the six days leading up to the event and the event itself (January 17-23, 2015). There were no tweets in the six days preceding the event, so I decided to take a second sample to see if the conversations using the hashtag extended after the event and through the following six days (January 23-29, 2015). This data set did show some engagement continuing after the event itself had ended. My analysis here is based on the data from the second collection period.
There are two characteristics of the tweets that I am particularly interested in as I work to apply this case study to future contexts: the categories of tweets being used by participants and the reach of those tweets beyond the event itself. To categorize my data, I considered the taxonomies of several researchers, but I did not think they offered the depth of analysis in the areas I wanted to focus on for my data. For example, in “Tweeting the Meeting: An In-Depth Analysis of Twitter Activity at Kidney Week 2011,” Tejas Desai, Afreen Shariff, Aabid Shariff, Mark Kats, Xiangming Fang, Cynthia Christiano, Maria Ferris provide some basic content descriptions for classifying tweets based on content, sentiment, and citation; however, my analysis was more focused on content and necessitated a more nuanced categorization system.5 To address the lack of appropriate taxonomy, I created my own. After reviewing the dataset for #AnnotateMIT and performing an informal survey of my own Twitter feed, I selected these categories as representative of most—if not all—tweets: Re-tweet (no commentary), Re-tweet with commentary, Re-tweet with critique, Informative, Interrogative, Critique, Commercial/Promotional, and Response. These tags can be used to identify the purpose and/or function of tweets for any application; however, some tweets may span multiple categories. My #AnnotateMIT data does not represent all of these categories. My goal with this taxonomy is to provide a useful tool for others to use as they analyze tweets for their own purposes. The list of categories and their abbreviations are included in Table 1, and the distribution of data from my #AnnotateMIT dataset is included in Table 2.
During Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop, the majority of #AnnotateMIT tweets were informative (55.5%). These included participants sharing quotes, pictures, and ideas from presentations as well as more practical announcements. Some participants chose to live-tweet the event, posting short descriptions or quotes about each presenter or topic. Nearly all of the re-tweeted material (about 34% of total tweets) came from these informational tweets. While there is no perfect ratio of original tweets to re-tweets, balance is important and #AnnotateMIT’s proportions seem healthy for a small workshop like Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop. Larger events run the risk of being overtaken by re-tweets; having 55.5% of the total tweets for #AnnotateMIT be original, informational content and another 3.2% be interrogative content, shows that this event facilitated engagement from participants and digital spectators. This does not mean that the re-tweets, which made up 34.2% of the sample, were detrimental to the event. In fact, those re-tweets of original content greatly helped improve the circulation of information about the event.
The second point of interest within the #AnnotateMIT dataset is the circulation and reach of the event’s tweets. Despite being a rather small event attended by only about 75 people, tweets about #AnnotateMIT showed up on the feeds of thousands of people, including mine. As the categorical data about #AnnotateMIT showed, there was a high percentage of re-tweets, so that is a good place to start thinking about the reach of this event’s tweets. In the map below, we see the levels of interaction between different users participating in the #AnnotateMIT conversation. The dotted blue lines represent re-tweets. As this map shows there was a complex systems of content circulation happening among three levels of users: a primary highly involved set of users, a secondary set of users who contributed some content but also contributed to distribution through re-tweeting, and a tertiary set of users who had limited involvement and seem to be spectators. This primary set of users represented in the map correspond with the top ten contributors to my dataset.
Both the categorical data about #AnnotateMIT and data about its overall circulation show room for growth. This event has built on the digital promotional experience gained from many before it. The first event to use this hashtag back in 2013 only had 57 tweets total. Almost two years later, this similar event spurred a conversation of 407 tweets. With the development in mind, I started to think about how we can use this information to create better digital promotion for our own events in the future. We can benefit from the positive examples of #AnnotateMIT’s decisive branding and encouraged usage as well as from considering strategies they could more successfully employ, such as designing a more structured digital promotion plan, inviting a wider audience of live-tweet spectators, and finding ways to keep the conversation going after each event ends.
Putting This Information to Use
Many conferences, meetings, and courses have their own hashtags, and these academic and professional entities are not wholly unlike the multitude of corporations who tweet advertisements at their followers regularly. However, these groups often do not possess marketing expertise in general or social media marketing expertise in particular. This lack of experience can easily lead to ineffective use of the medium; in fact, the misuse of promotion on social media has prompted multiple companies who offer services that help users learn how to “Strike the balance between informative and annoying.” 6 For many academics or administrators who may be interested in using social media to raise the profile of their event, hiring a company is not necessary, but taking advantage of some of their tactics might be beneficial. Using this case study of #AnnotateMIT during Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop as a model, we can discuss some strategies to improve digital academic promotion in the future.
Brand Your Hashtag
If the event will be recurrent, using a consistent hashtag will help participants keep up with previous conversations and rejoin future conversations. In these cases, it is best to decide on a hashtag well before the event and include it in promotional material and literature. A successful hashtag will likely be one that people can find by accident, so using a variation on the organizing group’s name or the event’s name will help interested Googlers find your Twitter feed. In our example, HyperStudio settled on the #AnnotateMIT hashtag as a general and inclusive way to make conversations about the many resources they offer searchable. They used the hashtag throughout multiple events and made it easily accessible at attendees.
For the Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop event, they included their event hashtag and Twitter handle on the programs that were distributed.
This is a small step in effective branding of this event’s hashtag, but it is convenient for participants and seems to have been effective when used in conjunction with verbal reminders. If facilitating an online conversation or promoting the event in online spaces is important, then distributing the event hashtag early and reiterating it periodically will help participants remember it and use it without as much direct prompting.
Encourage Its Use
In addition to listing the hashtag on promotional and informational materials, it is important to directly encourage the use of your hashtag. This can happen through direct calls-to-action in promotional emails or social media posts as well as in person at the event, i.e. Make sure you use #AnnotateMIT as you comment, ask questions, and share resources on Twitter! During the Annotation Studio Workshop event in 2013, the organizers began using #AnnotateMIT to facilitate the conversation, but there appears to have been a competing hashtag, #HyperStudio. To clarify this misconception, in the third tweet to include the #AnnotateMIT hashtag, one attendee directly identified #AnnotateMIT as the “Proper hashtag” for the event.
This was not an attempt to eliminate the #HyperStudio hashtag all together, but the issue of competing hashtags for an event is particularly problematic on Twitter where communication is limited to 140 characters. Encouraging the use of a single hashtag has the benefit of coalescing the event’s content. With the incredible number of tweets that populate individuals’ feeds on a daily basis, making sure that anyone interested in your event can find the relevant content with a quick search is important. Explicitly encouraging participants to use a pre-determined hashtag may seem difficult or overwhelming, but there are resources to help get the information out there.
Take Advantage of Timing Strategies
When trying to raise awareness about your event and inform people about your hashtag, it can be difficult to know how, when, or how often to tweet or post on various forms of social media. For Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: A Workshop, the HyperStudio at MIT did not utilize the #AnnotateMIT hashtag to build interest online in the days leading up to the event. During the event itself, they posted sporadically and primarily re-tweeted informative tweets posted by participants. While this strategy doesn’t seem to have been directly detrimental, it does seem somewhat haphazard. Presenting a more metered stream of information may be more beneficial for participants and digital spectators alike. Before considering timing specifically, it is important to discuss more general hashtag etiquette. Twitter has created a page devoted to this topic, which suggests that you 1) limit the number of hashtags in a tweet to two, 2) make sure that the hashtag is relevant to the content of the tweet, and 3) remember that hashtags used on a public account are searchable by anyone. 7 Next, as mentioned above, there are organizations that claim to help optimize your social media presence, and this information can be useful as you plan and raise awareness about your event. In “Social Media Frequency Guide,” author Kevan Lee’s finding suggest that the optimal number of tweets varies depending on your goals. For example, if you want to optimize engagement with individual tweets, then three to five tweets per day may be best; however, if you want to optimize overall engagement with the posts, then the data support posting up to 30 times per day.6
During the event itself, striking this balance is even more important and difficult to accomplish. One strategy to take some of the stress out of seeding and facilitating a conversation through you hashtag is to use an automated tweeting application. Martin Hawksey, the same researcher who created the TAGS spreadsheet I used during data collection, has also created an EasyTweetSheet that enables users to schedule tweets through TwtrService.8 Using a program like this, you could schedule promotional tweets in the weeks leading up to the event, tweets about the event line-up to post as the schedule unfolds, and post-event prompts for further collaboration and discussion.
Invite Digital Spectators
In addition to promotion for potential attendees, I would recommend targeting some marketing toward interested parties who may not be able to attend the event itself. With a well-distributed hashtag and individuals either officially or unofficially live-tweeting the event, there is greater potential for a much wider audience to learn about your event and benefit from your content. This external engagement could prompt spectators to attend future events or share tweets from the event, allowing that information to reach new followers. The organizers of the #AnnotateMIT event discussed above primarily advertised through their website and their mailing list.9 The tweets from the event show that a few outsiders participated in the conversation surrounding the workshop, but many of the tweets were posted by attendees, showing a shortage of external engagement. Casting a wider net through promotion on Twitter in addition to more conventional methods could have provided this event with a more diverse external audience and more overall exposure. Both of these effects would be positive for future events and have the potential to create a richer atmosphere for discussion at the event and on Twitter.
Keep the Conversation Going
After an event ends, the conversation tends to end, and that is normal. However, if you are using a hashtag, like #AnnotateMIT, that will be used for future events, then it is especially important to maintain the visibility that you just cultivated. For #AnnotateMIT, the conversation seems to enter a state of hibernation after each event, which makes it more difficult for a potential participant to stumble across the hashtag when scrolling through her feed. Creating an ongoing visibility might mean posting links to event materials in the week(s) following and using the hashtag to draw attention from followers or posting follow-up questions to give both local and distant participants the opportunity and encouragement to share what they learned from the event and how it will affect their practice in the future. Typically, an academic event hashtag will not be trending, so you may also want to take these follow-up questions and supplementary information with more general hashtags used in your field, i.e. #TechEd or #DigitalHumanities could accompany #AnnotateMIT on future tweets intending to reach a broader audience. Using this engagement strategy, organizers might be able to keep the #AnnotateMIT conversation going between events, prompting new ideas and creating a space for collaboration.
Possibly the most important takeaway here is to remember that hashtags were created to facilitate an accessible conversation. As you plan your events and participate in the events of others, I would encourage anyone, regardless of your academic or professional affiliation, to keep that broader conversation in mind and actively join in.
9 Folsom, Jamie. Personal email. 11 Feb. 2015.