If you are a fan of the #SMEM Community on Twitter, you already know that discussion on the use of hashtags is a common refrain.
And if you aren’t on Twitter, you’ve probably heard of hashtags, but wonder what all the fuss is about. In simple terms, placing a # symbol in front of a word makes it a searchable term. This means that if multiple people use the same hashtag within their Twitter experience, a user needs only to click on the #hashtag to see everyone else who is using this term in common.
As you can imagine, watching hashtags during a crisis event can be very useful because if many people are using the same tag, you can quickly judge sentiment analysis and tease out the key issues that are important to your broader community.
Sounds great, right? So, how could there be any controversy?
The controversy rests in whether or not a community can preplan their hashtag use and what happens when a tag becomes cluttered with off-topic tweets. Some communities, like Burlington, Vermont, have had great experiences with using a specific hashtag like #BTV which has trained their residents to use this tag to regularly share information about their community.
Other states and cities, like New Mexico and Los Angeles, have used tags to separate hazards like #NMFire and #LAWind. And, commonly, you’ll see state identifiers in front of WX (which means weather) to identify weather-based hazards like #OKWX in Oklahoma.
These tags work well if they are adopted by the communities and used with consistency for clear purpose. At times, however, hashtags can get hijacked. One of my favorite blog posts occurred about a year ago when #BTV in Burlington, Vermont became hijacked by a political situation in Bahrain. This situation in Burlington resulted in this excellent blog response by someone I greatly respect, Gahlord Dewald (@gahlord), who shared how to filter your hashtag by location so that you can eliminate the noise created by people who are using the hashtag for alternate purposes.
Today, the #SMEM hashtag came to mean “Social Media for Election Commission” with an influx of arabic tweets out of Palestine. Among some interactions with its primary user, the tag is being used for a training course on how to take over an election and will likely be in play until Tuesday evening overseas.
And if you saw the conversation on both #SMEM and #SMEMChat after this, we had a lively conversation about whether to move to a new tag or stay on the #SMEM tag despite the irrelevant noise created by this alternate meaning.
I think there are lessons to be considered by emergency response and/or management agencies:
- It is always important to test a hashtag before you commit to using it. You may find many alternate meanings for tags you intend to use.
- Always be searching for the hashtag that is most commonly in use by your community. During dynamic situations, hashtags may start as one thing, but quickly change during an emergency incident. For example, #ChristChurch quickly morphed into #chch during their earthquake in 2011.
- Watch what content is being shared on your current hashtag. In April during tornadoes in Oklahoma, #OKWX was being hit by porn-related spammers. This creates risk because in emergency situations, people crave information and particularly pictures, clicking on a malware link posted by a spammer can result in trouble later on.
- Finally, if you plan to use preplanned hashtags in an emergency event, be mindful that you may need a backup plan if your tag becomes corrupted or so cluttered, it’s difficult to use.
As an emergency manager, I’ve watched several local hashtags become overwhelmed by retweet robots which share information at least 6 times over 24-hours and I’ve watched a local tag (#pdxtst which means Portland Twitter Storm Team), created as a joke by some community memebers, become the prevailing weather reporting tag in my local area for years.
The key questions are:
- What will the community use?
- How will the community respond when common tags become overrun with other meaning.
And despite the fact that I said I would leave the #SMEM tag on Twitter by Wednesday if we find it overrun this week, the reality is…..I will watch, with interest, what our community does in response to the alternate meaning that surfaced today.