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A Hashtag Handbook for Online Students

HashtagsIf you are familiar with this blog, you probably know that Twitter is one of my favorite resources. For learners and instructors alike, Twitter can be a basic tool for networking and communication. But when I introduce Twitter to new users, including my online students, the more advanced use of hashtags seems to be a roadblock of sorts.

What is a hashtag?

As defined by AllTwitter, “a hashtag, or ‘#’, denotes a keyword or topic on Twitter. It’s any string of characters without spaces.” First used in 2007, Twitter Support notes that hashtags were “created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.”

Think of it as using the “hash” symbol to “tag” your message with keywords or phrases. These tags can be searched within Twitter to find other messages that have been tagged in the same way. For example, the tweet below includes the hashtag #culinary:

Hashtag Hashtag

When I see this tweet online, I can click on the hashtag to view messages from other users also interested in this topic:

Hashtag culinary search

This list of tweets includes culinary-related links and images that lead you to more information. It’s this functionality of the hashtag that allows us to group resources and filter the endless stream of information shared via more than 200 million active accounts.

Hashtags in Action

Once you have a handle on Twitter account basics – completed your profile, used re-tweets and replies, followed other accounts – it’s time to explore more advanced use with hashtags. While some “get it” right away, others need more examples, suggestions, and feedback. In the context of higher education, here are a few ways you can make hashtags work for you as you pursue academic course work, conversations about professional topics, and information about jobs and careers:

Expand your network.

Searching for specific hashtags related to your major or career field is a good way to find other accounts that share your interests, so you can then follow them. Career and job search-related hashtags are also prevalent and allow you to locate accounts that post advice as well as links to position openings.

Hashtag Careers

Monitor events.

Logistics and budgets often keep us from attending professional conferences, but many events now encourage a kind of virtual attendance through use of a unique hashtag. It’s one way to see who is attending and learn from what they share about their experience via Twitter. Here are just a few of the conference hashtags I’ve been following over the last several weeks: #NACE13, #DLA13, #NMC13. Conduct a search to see what the “backchannel” looks like.

Hashtag Events

Join a conversation.

Real-time discussions are a popular use of Twitter and participation takes place through the use of a common hashtag that everyone includes in their tweets. You can find a wide variety of scheduled chats posted in online lists, such as the Educational Chat Schedule, organized by day and time. The example below is from a recent College Cash Chat that features topics related to financial aid planning.

Hashtag Conversation

Search for information.

Conduct a hashtag search, just like you would search by keyword in a library database or with Google, to find links and information others are sharing about the topic via Twitter. Note: you’ll see any public accounts using the hashtag; you don’t have to be following each other. The screenshot below shows just one tweet in a search for information about MOOCs.

Hashtag search

Share resources and ask questions.

Contribute your expertise and links to your favorite resources for others to find in their searches by adding hashtags to your tweets. Using hashtags also makes your messages more visible. Anyone searching for the hashtags you’ve used can see your tweet (if your account is not private), thus extending your reach beyond your followers. Take a look at the difference in these two versions of the same message:

  • Reading about summer internships for online students. Please send your suggestions my way!
  • Reading about summer #internships for #onlinestudents. Please send your suggestions my way!

Through the use of hashtags, the second option has the potential to reach a wider audience and hopefully will result in additional interaction.

Is there a “right way” to add a hashtag?

The examples above illustrate some of the most common ways to use hashtags and there are a few generally accepted guidelines to follow. As the use of hashtags evolves, so will ideas about what is most effective. Start with these dos and don’ts:


  • Start with existing hashtags. Anyone can create a hashtag, but if you are just beginning, look for some of the hashtags others are already using and try them for yourself.
  • Check to see how others use it. What may seem like a logical connection to you may be interpreted very differently by someone else. Be aware of the context in which a hashtag may be perceived when your tweet is discovered by other users in their searches.
  • Make them relevant. Hashstags are the kind of thing that can get annoying to other users, so make sure you choose them carefully and to add meaning to your messages and updates.
  • Keep them short. The characters in your hashtags count against the character limit in your overall message, so #edtech can be more helpful than #educationaltechnology, for example.
  • Have fun with it. Hashtags are often used to simply add context to a message, help convey an idea or mood, manage limited character space, or add a little personality or humor to a message, as in these two examples:

Hashtag- Humor
Hashtag for fun


  • Use too many. It’s possible to over-tag and come across like spam. There are different opinions on how many is too many, but Twitter suggests that two hashtags are the max for any one message. There are exceptions, of course, but this is a good rule of thumb.
  • Get overwhelmed. Hashtags continue to grow in popularity and possibility. Following a lot of them is not realistic and will likely just lead to frustration. Pick a few and add them to your own use. Find out where they help you and make sense in the context of your interests and social media presence.

Are hashtags just for Twitter?

While the phenomenon began on Twitter, hashtags have made the leap to many additional social media and networking systems. Try using and searching for hashtags with your Google+, Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube, or LinkedIn accounts. There are more, including Facebook, which announced just yesterday that it is “beginning to roll out hashtags”, as one of “a series of features that surface some of the interesting discussions people are having about public events, people, and topics.”

You can also conduct a simple Google search for a specific hashtag to get results from across the Web. Here’s a partial look at my search for #culinary:

culinary   Google Search

You may also notice hashtags popping up offline these days, from your television screen to highway billboards. Now that you know more about them, you’ll probably notice them in more places.

Hashtag Lists for Online Learners

Through the examples in this post I’ve included a few hashtags you might be interested in following, but there are many, many more out there. Explore these collections and recommended lists:

To find out how it all works and get more comfortable adding hashtags to your own tweet, practice is important. It’s also helpful to watch how others use them and take a few notes about what you like and don’t like as you develop your own approach.

If you are interested in trying a live chat, join us on Wednesdays at 12pm ET using the Inside Online Learning hashtag: #IOLchat.

What are your questions about hashtags? Do you have any favorites to suggest for other online learners? Add them to the comments area of this post!

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr, CC:BY-SA

June 14th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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