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Why do we hate Facebook hashtags?

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Remember when everyone got braces in 5th or 6th grade? You thought they were the coolest things in the world and you wanted yours, pronto. And then a horrible thing happened: Your dentist didn’t advise you get braces until 8th grade, right when everyone else’s had done their jobs, and they had shiny, beautiful straight teeth. You had a mouth full of metal. 

Hashtags are Facebook’s braces. The social network was late to the party, and now it’s stuck looking silly: This week Edgerank Checker revealed that the Facebook hashtag not only has no effect, but will actually hurt the possibility of your post going viral.

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What gives?

Well, for one, our real identities. You don’t have to use your real name on Twitter or other services – and, furthermore, that name and profile aren’t necessarily backed up by, potentially, years of photographic evidence and personal data that identifies you. Facebook has made its claim on our “real” Internet identities; it’s why Facebook Connect became such a valuable resourced, and why so many apps that value security require a Facebook login so that you can’t fudge who you are. But because of that, we’re more careful with what we post. That’s not the case on Twitter.

Facebook, you taught us to create friend groups and ran us through tutorials on privacy settings. We’ve been trained to be very careful with you. Twitter, on the other hand, is running through a burning building screaming whatever you want – and there’s but an off-chance anyone will hear or acknowledge what you’re saying. It’s harder to make real conversations and connections on Twitter; you start at 0 followers because you don’t bring a friend base with you. You do on Facebook, and thus the things you post will get noticed by people. You don’t need hashtags to connect and find friends. They’re already there.

“Facebook is a more intimate, person-to-person sharing environment,” says Eric Convino, founder of Creative Signals and an SEO expert. “Twitter is less intimate to one’s ‘circle’ of family and friends.”

It’s not just that updating your status with a hashtag does nothing to help it – it will hurt it.

“When you … understand that Facebook is designed around a closer knit personal community than Twitter is, it isn’t hard to make the leap to where hashtags do not really make sense on Facebook,” he explains. “Facebook is a repository of someone’s life where Twitter is like a thought-stream, at least in terms of usage.”

Rapid-fire conversations in big loud spaces require a flag that says, “Hey! I’m talking about what you’re talking about! Let’s talk about it together, even if we’re strangers!” That’s why Twitter needs the hashtag. Otherwise, it can be a lonely place where the content flies so fast you never know when to engage.

“The primary use of hashtags – for brands to promote products, companies to promote events, and users to immerse themselves publicly in a conversation about a topic – plays much better to the accepted use of Twitter,” Covino says.

It’s also worth noting that Twitter’s limited character count means adding metadata is just plain useful – same goes for Instagram. You’re posting images, usually without long, drawn out explanations (hopefully; don’t be that guy). Hashtags work as a way to define it, or connect it to something similar. On Facebook, you connect to people who are “similar,” usually friends, family, colleagues or friends of friends. On Twitter and Instagram you connect to the things people are saying or showing. Thus, a hashtag helps you make that connection.

This all explains why Twitter needs and thrives on hashtags, but it doesn’t address why hashtags are having a negative impact on Facebook posts. It’s not just that updating your status with a hashtag does nothing to help – it will hurt it.

“Posts with hashtags actually have less Viral Reach, on average, than posts without hashtags,” says Edgerank Checker in its report. Edgerank Checker hypothesizes that this is simply because people aren’t clicking Facebook hashtags. But… why aren’t we?! Hashtagged posts are more likely to get retweets on Twitter, according to Edgerank Checker. Why is Facebook different?

Well for starters, a little clarification needs to be made: Edgerank Checker was only measuring how Pages – not profiles – were using hashtags and how users weren’t clicking on them. The analytics service wasn’t researching the peer-to-peer effect of hashtags, just brand use and engagement levels. However, Edgerank Checker founder Chad Wittman tells me he “personally think[s] this is also occurring between personal users, as personal users would also be the ones interacting with a brand’s post.”

Chirpify, a company that uses hashtags on Twitter for in-stream purchase (and is prepping to launch its “next evolution of hashtags” soon) knows a thing or two about the tool. “Hashtags are not as effective on Facebook because they are new to the platform and have not been integrated in a decentralized way like Instagram and Twitter,” says CEO Chris Teso. “There still is no platform-wide access to hashtags, and they are confined and obey by the sharing and privacy rules set by each individual.”

So, to sum up: We’re simply not interested in directly communicating with brands on Facebook like we do on Twitter – or in talking to real people like we talk to brands. Twitter isn’t “real people”; Twitter is weird and flippant and surface – you don’t see those people in real life (often). I certainly don’t hob knob with Taco Bell on the regular, but I will absolutely tweet at them. The people I engage with on Facebook, however, I see every day, week, or month. In addition, Facebook’s privacy structure makes hashtags less useful than they are on Twitter or Instagram, with Facebook users unable to explore a certain topic like they would on the other, more open social networks.

In the end, it comes down to people versus things. Embrace it, Facebook. Hashtags might not be the goldmine for you they’ve been for Twitter, but you have something the micro-blogging platform never will: A (comparatively) human touch.

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