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Why I Unfollow People Who Use Hashtags On Twitter

Update(finally:) Comments closed below. Followed up here.

Explained in less than 140 characters: What’s #irritating about #this sentence?

It kind of looks like a representation of someone with food in their mouth while they talk.

I’ve been asked about a half-dozen times in the last couple of days what’s behind my curmudgeonly policy of removing people from my Twitter list who use # signs embedded in their messages. Why do people do this? According to the Twitter Fan Wiki: “Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. They’re like tags on Flickr, only added inline to your post. You create a hashtag simply by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: #hashtag.” There’s also a site, hashtags.org, that lets you track individual hashtag words.

Key phrase here — “only added inline to your post”. Imagine what Flickr would look like if all of the metadata was visually stuck to your photograph. Or what your blog would look like if you had to have a character before every word in your text that was also a keyword. Ick.

As I was polling Brian Oberkirch this morning to get a gut-check on just how curmudgeonly I am on this subject, he pointed me to this NPR story. It’s about a technique that scientists can now use to trace your life’s movements in time and space by the isotopes in the DNA found in your hair. Since clouds in different parts of the country have different isotope levels, if it’s been affected by rainwater the water you drink and food you eat writes something of a record of where you’ve been into your hair. Wild. As Brian succintly put it via IM: “The isotope count is a permanent record. So that is metadata…that in no way interferes with functionality.” It doesn’t change your hair color or do anything at all to your hair visibly. It’s there, but it might as well not be because you can’t see it. Brian added “…Ambient metadata ftw.” It’s several minutes later and I’m still sitting here marvelling at both the smarts behind this new technique and at how well Brian’s example crystallized the way things should be with metadata.

I want my Twitter to remain as human a form of communication as possible. I read and follow the people I follow because they’re primarily publishing for the immediate hearer, not for some database somewhere or machines rigged up to listen at particular frequencies. There are plenty of tools that allow you to mine the data in Twitter without getting in the way of the flow of conversation. Twitter’s “track” functionality allows you to receive updates any time a particular word pops up in Tweets, and persistent searches like Terraminds will pull in via RSS whatever search you like. And there are any number of apps in the cottage industry that is Twitter add-ons that will help you find things in the Twitterverse. The functionality gained here is not worth making Twitter messages ugly and cluttered. Metadata needs to live outside of the line of fire.

There have been few enough people I have unfollowed for using Hashtags that I can still remember all of them. That’s been about six out of the 200 people I follow. Some of them I follow in other ways, just not on Twitter anymore. If Hashtags became widely adopted, I’d probably have to rethink my stance but that would really bum me out on Twitter in general.

So both because I don’t want to see those # signs littered throughout messages and because I want to register my dislike for invasive add-ons like this, I unfollow people when I see them using hashtags. I’ll certainly add you back if you ask nicely. It’s a zero-tolerance policy up front, but then there’s some leeway on the back end. It’s just my preference to have my Twitter be as human eyes-friendly as possible, and to guard against systems that threaten that. It can’t be an accident that Twitter’s developers have shyed away from visible metadata and markup, with the possible exception of the @username convention, which itself is more like grammar than metagrammar.

Chris Messina has written about using them in disaster relief coordination and I can’t say I have a huge problem with that. When bad things happen, people flip out and anything that can help pull people together is a positive. I certainly wouldn’t stop following people in the middle of a disaster because I saw them using hashtags. And my analogy of slurred or impeded speech extends here — in an emergency you’ll hear all sorts of verbal utterances that would be considered irritating or inappropriate under normal circumstances.

If you want to follow me(and don’t use hashtags :)), you can request to follow me at http://www.twitter.com/extraface. I wish there was a way Twitter allowed you to send me a message providing some context, but in the meantime you might consider dropping me an email as well, just to say “hi! I’d like to read your tweets.”

Recently published on Extraface:

  1. Not only are the hashtags annoying, but the #utils +/- arbitraryNumber are even more annoying. I can infer that you are angry, sad or neutral about your tweet just by reading it. I really don’t think you need to track the arbitrary numbers of your happiness. Seriously.

    March 26, 2009 at 12:38 am (#)
  2. I do like hashtags as long as they’re not being overused. It is much easier and convenient to find information about a particular subject or event. But yes, adding a tag to each post is stupid, the tags lose sense. Can’t agree about text being in Flickr pictures – after all, text doesn’t really need to be visually appealing. OK, it is #irritating that almost #every #word is being #hashtagged, but adding a tag to the end of a tweet is really convenient.

    March 29, 2009 at 1:27 pm (#)
  3. I wonder if you still feel the same way, now that a year has passed and Twitter and the tools for using it have evolved.

     Daniel Johnson, Jr. 
    April 4, 2009 at 10:30 pm (#)
  4. I don’t like them at all. Thanks for the post!

     Michelle Pendergrass 
    April 4, 2009 at 10:36 pm (#)
  5. why stop at hashtags? I’m sick of people wrecking the already hobbled elegance of the english language with “LOL”, “@whatever”,” ftw”, et cetera, and 140 character limits. Being succinct is one thing, but the way us programmers have been able to infiltrate the english language on the web is increasingly degrading the visual asthetic of our language and culture. I would like to see a revival of victorian prose, personally, and get away from using inhumanly small devices as we record our permanent legacy on this digital medium.

    April 14, 2009 at 5:03 am (#)
  6. In oral conversation, punctuation was ‘invisible metadata’. Now it is explicit. The same thing is happening with hashtags. Today’s weird mark that looks unsightly is tomorrow’s expected mark that looks perfectly normal.

    Eventually people will be writing hashmarks where they don’t need to, just to mark out concepts as ‘conceptual’ — and out of force of habit. Kind of the way people. Have. Started. Using. Periods. For. Emphasis!

    Adapt or die.

    P.S. You are not a curmudgeon actually, you are a pedant.

    June 8, 2009 at 6:49 pm (#)
  7. So, in addtition to the hash tags, would you like the ‘@’ removed too?
    Come on, there are better ways to get around this.
    Take a look at my exampe: http://martiendejong/t++

    It completely removes the hash tags and @ from the messages, but it uses them to filter content.

    It is still in beta, but tell me what you think (if you can get over the fact that I am using hashtags, ofcourse)

     Martien de Jong 
    July 1, 2009 at 8:12 am (#)
  8. Coming late into the discussion but just found your blog today – great stuff :)
    Anyway, although I hardly use them at all, I also don’t mind hashtags in moderation, it makes it easier to track and search on a particular topic that you are following, and find others who I may not be following but that are tweeting interesting things about something I find interesting.

    I do find it annoying when people find ways of using their entire sentences using multiple hashtags or are trying to use it in ways that just try and get their tweet more exposure but has little to do with the subject or has no benefit to those following that particular hashtag except providing extra unnecessary ‘noise’.

     Penny Butler 
    January 26, 2010 at 12:47 am (#)
  9. #epicfail

    April 30, 2010 at 5:08 pm (#)
  10. Seriously? You unfollow, or unfriend, people who use hash tags? What if I am looking for people in my small little area? I have done searches for keywords, but hash tags are the easiest.

    I’m not saying that we should hash every single word in the twitter update, but still… you dont have to be so whiny over an useful tool.

    May 12, 2010 at 5:47 pm (#)
  11. I’ve just made a Google Chrome extension to remove the hash sign from hashtags:

     Ricardo Stuven 
    June 26, 2010 at 7:01 pm (#)
  12. Ya, I totally agree that hashtags are annoying. You guys seen this?

    February 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm (#)
  13. hashtags can get annoying, but the benefit of reaching a larger audience or targeting your message to an audience who cares is priceless. http://apt2labs.com/2011/03/16/hashtags-secret-twitter-tool/

     Daniel "Diggler" Pro 
    March 16, 2011 at 9:24 am (#)
  14. Personally, I don’t think this topic is worth expending so much energy over. But, I do find it funny that your permalinks appear as # (the symbol formerly known as “pound”).

    March 16, 2011 at 7:03 pm (#)
  15. And with that, Misfist, you’re the last one in. I don’t think it’s all that funny that permalinks appear as the # symbol – where they appear isn’t a string of speech. They’re interface elements. Nowhere did I indicate that I hate the symbol; I don’t like its use in Twitter.

    More updated thoughts over here: http://blog.extraface.com/2011/03/20/i-get-older-the-blog-entries-stay-the-same-age/ . Comments over here are now closed.

     Dave Coustan 
    March 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm (#)

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