Busy as a … hashtag?

“Hashtag” by Kejava https://flickr.com/photos/14296351@N00/9741003119 is licensed under CC BY-NC

The hash (#) sign may only be a symbol, but when combined with a folksonomical tagword, it becomes one of the hardest working actors within the Twitter ecosystem.

It’s generally accepted that the origin of the hashtag can be traced back to a single tweet

…with the concept being fleshed out by Messina in this longer post. Since then, hashtags have served the needs of those seeking ambient affiliation around particular topics or issues (Zappavigna, 2011), providing the means through which to conduct ‘searchable talk.’ Bruns and Burgess (2011) illustrated how hashtags enable ‘ad hoc publics’ to form and discuss issues without the need to establish follower/followee relationships. The issue might be topical or timely, come into being for a short while, then evaporate, or indeed it can become longer lasting, with the hashtag assembling a community of interest. As Bruns and Burgess also noted, some hashtags may form ‘praeter hoc,’ in anticipation of an event

it is this very flexibility of forming new hashtag communities as and when they are needed, without restriction, which arguably provides the foundation for Twitter’s recognition as an important tool for the discussion of current events.

Membership of communities which are somewhat longer lived affords members

the opportunity to learn what the people in their field know, with access to diverse thoughts and ideas, access to expertise, and the opportunity to be an expert, and with knowledge that they can put into practice

Gilbert, 2016

Whilst communities are one way to conceptualise how users are aggregated by a hashtag, Budak and Agrawal (2013) describe Twitter chats being conducted through ‘group’ activity. Here participants provide informational support to one another, provide a welcoming environment and, despite being described as a group, share a strong sense of community. Cook et al (2013) describe their key properties of a group, in the context of a Twitter chat, being that it meets regularly, is synchronised (meets at a specific time) and is cohesive.

A further way in which people can associate by means of a hashtag is articulated by Rosenburg et al (2016) in their research into SETHs – State Educational Twitter Hashtags. Although having a geospatial association with US states (e.g. #caedchat for California), they are not mandated by the state systems, yet allow participants work with and learn about local topics. Rosenburg et al conceptualise this using Gee’s (2005) ‘affinity spaces’ – “digital or physical spaces in which participants interact with one another around content of shared interest and through a common portal (or platform).” So rather than the hashtag producing a collection of people, here it provides the space within which they can conduct their activities.

The hashtag can also work in a different way, serving an individual’s needs within a broader context, by allowing users to take a particular ‘stance’ and present a view or views which suggest alignment or disagreement without the need to flesh out the details (Evans, 2016) e.g. #FreeEducation or #OpenAccess.

With all this in mind, I’ll now reflect on a few of the hashtags which have drawn my attention during my research and from long before it, and the functions they have performed:

  • Curriculum areas – these hashtags assist those teachers who specialise in teaching particular areas of the curriculum like #asechat (Association for Science Education),  #GeographyTeacher or #engchat
  • Communities – groups of people who share a particular interest like the #mfltwitterati, #EduMatch or NZBTchat (New Zealand Beginning Teachers)
  • Geospatial – hashtags which help those in a particular region find one another and discuss local issues: #edchatie (teachers from Eire), #scotedchat (Scotland) and even individual school districts like #katyisdela (Katy Independent School District English Language Arts) which situates a particular curriculum area within a specific region.
  • Time-limited – these hashtags materialise for a particular time, often for the duration of an activity: #12daystwitter and #WeeklyBlogChallenge17
  • Celebration – hashtags promoting the efforts of others, like  our schools or pupils (#pedagoo), and sometimes the contributions of others (#ff).
  • Solidarity – in which the hashtag often shows support for a particular issue or initiative, like #WomenEd
  • Well being – hashtags which gather people in activities geared specifically towards their physical or mental health such as #teacher5aday or #nurture1617
  • Backchannels – there are a multitude of hashtags which come into being to enable communication and discussion around particular events like conferences (#bett) and courses (#BYOD4L)

Some of the above can be traced back a long way, some are more recent and others ebb and flow as the calendar unfolds. Whilst they may only consist of a few characters inserted into a tweet, they punch well above their weight. When used in conjunction with the Twitter search function, they enable long strings of tweets, sometimes posted over extended periods of time, by hundreds of people, to be assembled together. They extend the reach of individual users beyond the list of people they are following and thus potentially help to forge new relationships. It would be remiss however, to see them as bound to tweets; their reach extends much further. Take the example of #12daystwitter shown above. This came to my attention through a single tweet

Exploring further, I found a few more details on this SMORE page, where the hashtag can be seen to provide a mechanism through which teachers from Norfolk Public Schools in Norfolk Nebraska can undertake activities leading to formal professional development accreditation. The founder of #12daystwitter, Mickie Mueller, curates the information and resources participants share into a LiveBinder, so the hashtag has now migrated into a different web space where, rather than enabling people to aggregate, it archives resources. As I said at the outset, a hard worker.


If you’re interested in exploring hashtags practically, rather than theoretically, a number of sites offer extensive lists from which to choose, and partly helped to inspire this post:


Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. E. (2011, August). The use of Twitter hashtags in the formation of ad hoc publics. In Proceedings of the 6th European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) General Conference 2011.

Budak, C., & Agrawal, R. (2013, May). On participation in group chats on twitter. In Proceedings of the 22nd international conference on World Wide Web (pp. 165-176). ACM.

Cook, J., Kenthapadi, K., & Mishra, N. (2013). Group chats on twitter. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference on World Wide Web, 225-236.

Evans, A. (2016). Stance and identity in twitter hashtags. Language@internet, 13

Gee, J. P. (2005). Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces. Beyond communities of practice language power and social context, 214-232.

Gilbert, S. (2016). Learning in a twitter-based community of practice: An exploration of knowledge exchange as a motivation for participation in# hcsmca. Information, Communication & Society, , 1-19.

Rosenberg, J. M., Greenhalgh, S. P., Koehler, M. J., Hamilton, E. R., Akcaoglu, M., Wright, N., & Forbes, D. (2016). An investigation of state educational twitter hashtags ( SETHs) as affinity spaces. E-Learning and Digital Media, 13(1-2), 24-44. doi:10.1177/2042753016672351

Zappavigna, M. (2011). Ambient affiliation: A linguistic perspective on twitter. New Media & Society, 13(5), 788-806.

10 thoughts on “Busy as a … hashtag?

  1. Aaron Davis: In is an edited extract from Twitter: A Biography, Jean Burgess and Nancy K. Baym discuss the hashtag from Chris Messina’s initial idea to the seed of many movements. Along with Ian Guest’s history of the hashtag, Clive Thompson’s exploration and Kevin Hodgson’s reflections, this piece helps provide an appreciation for the humble # and the way in which it connects so much together. via collect.readwriterespond.com


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