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Why Facebook hashtags aren't working--for users or brands

#meh I celebrated the addition of Facebook hashtags, and even picked a fight or two with naysayers in some of the reactionary threads you see whenever Facebook does anything new. But Facebook hashtags just aren’t working.

To illustrate, let's compare hashtags on Twitter and Facebook. Say a big story breaks having to do with Syria. Hop over to Twitter.com, and there’s a good chance it will be already featured in the Trends box. Or, just enter #syria into the search box , and you’ll get something like this:

Twitter #syria hashtag search #1 

Want all tweets in a purely chronological order? Just click All, and you get something like this:

Twitter hashtag #syria search #2

Here’s what happens on Facebook when you search for (or click on) a hashtag.

Facebook hashtag #syria

Famous names, popular posts, some posts from regular people with seemingly no logic as to why their content is featured. Not in chronological order. No ability to change anything to do with what or how content is displayed.

No wonder “hashtags aren’t driving additional engagement” for brands, even though 20% of branded posts include them.

Hashtags are one of the ways that Facebook is trying to strike more of a balance between the social graph and the interest graph. That makes sense, because we’re not only interested in what people we know are doing, what they think, etc. We want to follow things and people that interest us personally—regardless of whether our friends care about the same things and people. This is one reason that Twitter has been successful. It capitalized on the interest graph early on, and incorporated ways to connect people to what interests them, not just who they already know. Hashtags were one of the masterstrokes that made Twitter “the interest network.” When news breaks about Syria, like in the example above, do you really want to rely on people you knew in high school (Facebook) to relay it to you?  Facebook saw an opportunity to move into this territory, and started rolling out features like the ability to follow celebrities without actually knowing them (although you’re only getting their public posts). Hashtags were another move in this direction.

But they stripped hashtags of perhaps the most important factor in their popularity: real-time. Without displaying content in chronological order, without including more “unpopular” content from regular people, Facebook made hashtags into a static popularity contest.

One of the other big issues is privacy. Because most Facebook users post content privately (to their friends), you will only see hashtagged content from public posts and your existing Facebook friends. Twitter, however, is asymmetrical—you can see someone’s updates even if they don’t follow you back (unless they’re in the 11.84% of users that have protected accounts).

Facebook was late to the game with hashtags. They’re not used to being the underdog, and in at least this one way, they are. But to change that, they’ll need to quickly improve the experience, make it real-time and customizable, and educate users.

What do you think of Facebook hashtags? Is there any hope?  Share your POV in the comments below.

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© 2016 Ian Greenleigh