A closer look at Facebook’s hashtags

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Facebook recently introduced something that has been a staple of social media for years — hashtags. However, hashtags on Facebook feel somewhat incomplete. Facebook only rolled out hashtags on Wednesday to a portion of its users, leaving brands unable to take full advantage of this new feature, as many users were bewildered.

While Facebook’s younger and power users, who are also on Twitter and Instagram (where hashtags are the norm), may have understood, it confused others who aren’t on those other social channels.

So why did Facebook introduce support for hashtags, which are now searchable and clickable for some users? As other sites have speculated, Facebook (empowered by its acquisition of Storylane) could possibly announce on June 20 a revamp of notes or some other kind of blogging service that would serve as a Tumblr competitor. While this is not to say that Facebook will unveil such a product, it could happen in the future. Someday, users might be able to sort through posts and notes searchable by hashtags.

A Facebook spokesperson told Inside Facebook why hashtags were first rolled out to only a portion of users:

In regards to the rollout, we are starting small and hope to reach all users in the next couple of weeks.

While it was frustrating for many users who heard about the hashtags and assumed they’d be able to use them immediately, it’s understandable that the rollout process followed pretty much everything else Facebook has done in the past. Facebook traditionally introduces a new product to a portion of its userbase, examines how they use the product, and then continues rolling it out to a larger audience.

Could the rollout of hashtags signal that Facebook may be working on a way to see what friends are posting about by topic? One of the must frustrating things about Graph Search now is that users can’t find what friends are talking about. Hashtags could be the first way to solve this, but Facebook hasn’t released this capability publicly.

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Something Facebook could announce on June 20 is a strengthening of its blogging service, to become a quasi-competitor with Tumblr. Facebook isn’t afraid to emulate other platforms, though the track record for doing so is hit or miss. When Facebook came out with the Poke app for iPhone users, it was basically a way to fire back at Snapchat — the texting app where messages dissolve in seconds. Facebook was betting that the ability to connect with Facebook friends through Poke would make it popular.

The acquisition of Storylane shows that Facebook does want to be a place where users write about what’s on their minds, and in more than just the status update box. By utilizing hashtags, it would further connect users to the things they want to read about — namely, what their friends are posting about. Right now, the hashtag search function is rather weak. You can see posts from friends at the top, but then it’s just a most recent list of posts from all over the Facebook ecosystem.

Even in the announcement of hashtags, Facebook called it a “first step,” showing that there is likely more to come:

Hashtags are just the first step to help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations. We’ll continue to roll out more features in the coming weeks and months, including trending hashtags and deeper insights, that help people discover more of the world’s conversations.

By rolling out a stronger and more prominent version of Facebook Notes, it would allow users to add tags to entries, much like on WordPress and Tumblr. Then, users could easily bounce between posts their friends have written (or discover new public entries). Other than clicking on a user’s Timeline, scrolling utilizing the browser search feature, there’s not really a great way to index posts around a certain topic.

If Facebook goes in this direction, it could certainly be powerful, not only from a user standpoint, but from a marketing standpoint. Advertisers could further target ads to people who have posted about certain topics, making ads more relevant for users.

While Facebook is very tight-lipped about releases, word usually does leak somewhere. Even if Facebook does not announce some kind of hashtagged blogging service on Thursday, it could be something the site adds later on.

As various Facebook execs have discussed, the company wants the social network to be a place where someone’s true self shines through. What better way to do that than through blogs?

Hashtag image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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