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by Martin French
The inherent problem with many social networking systems or websites is, what we call, signal noise. There is simply so much information floating around that more often than not things simply get lost in the incessant chatter.
Twitter, by its very nature, is prone to the signal noise problem. Unless you studiously manage the people or organisations you are following then the average user is either going to miss a lot of stuff or just give up completely.
Outsiders, those without a Twitter account, searching for information will be even more likely to give up because general searches on Twitter often yield results that are completely un-related to the topic they are searching for.
The Best Hash
Step forward the, so-called, "hashtag". A hashtag on Twitter is any single word or phrase that is proceeded by a # symbol (referred to by Americans as a pound symbol).
Unusually the hashtag itself was not created by Twitter. It was suggested as a convenient way of managing groups of messages by an open source advocate called Chris Messina, who currently works for Google.
In 2009 Twitter made the hashtag a clickable "hyperlink" that presents the users with recent posts that incorporate the selected hashtag.
The principal is simple. You type your message into Twitter, add your chosen hashtag, which should be relevant to your message although not always, and then post.
For the recent State of the Arts conference, hosted by ACE, the #sota12 hashtag was used by dozens of people Tweeting about the event. The widespread use of that particular tag made it very easy for anybody and everybody to quickly locate the information on Twitter being disseminated about the conference.
Other online services also use hashtags but for the purposes of this piece we're just going to discuss Twitter.
Simply put, the hashtag is about collating information. If things are hard to find it helps if related information about a particular topic can easily be collated into one place. Instead of searching randomly or looking through dozens of Twitter feeds a user can simply click on a link and everything becomes a whole lot easier.
If a particular tag is used by enough people it may start to "trend" on Twitter, meaning the tag will be displayed on Twitter users account home pages. Trending is caused by lots of people talking about the same thing all at the same time and can lead to increased exposure for that particular topic.
US television shows often have hashtags permanently on screen (for example #fringe for the US Fox show of the same name), to encourage viewers to use the tag when talking about the show online.
The trending system is sometimes abused by Twitter users, this being the internet that should come as no surprise however. More often than not the misuse is aimed at spreading fake messages about celebrities dying unexpectedly.
There are, of course, downsides to the hashtag system. The biggest problem is getting people to consistently use the same hashtag when discussing or posting about a particular topic. Twitter doesn't care if something is similar (#sota12 vs #sota2012 for example) because the search criteria is absolute, not relative. If people use different hashtags then the utility of the system becomes diluted or lost completely.
Another issue is that the hashtag has a finite lifetime. Although Tweets containing hashtags are permanent until deleted by the user, Twitter's search system can be unpredictable about which Tweets it chooses to show and older messages are usually out of favour within a week or so.
So now we get to the reason we're talking about hashtags. Getting arts organisations and dance companies to deliver a collaborative communications message is akin to herding cats high on LSD in a hurricane at night.
Many of these organisations are on Twitter, we follow most of them, so getting them all together to use a single, easy to remember hastag should be no big deal, probably.
The tag in question is, of course, #contemporarydance. By using that one phrase any and all information distributed by dance companies, agencies, dancers, students and Article19 becomes instantly linked together. Twitter, as far as contemporary dance is concerned, becomes less like the wild west and more like the wild west with an easy to use information management system.
Dance companies could place the tag in their publicity materials and their programs, on their promo videos, their websites and of course their Tweets. The same goes for dance agencies and theatres that are regular hosts of contemporary dance and anybody else who happens to be talking about the art form.
Because the tag is generic it will act as a general tool to promote the art form and not a particular company or piece of work, something that this art form could really do with.
Best of all it doesn't require a meeting, a panel, a steering group or approval from the board. It's free, it's easy and you don't have to wait for somebody else to do it first. You can just start doing it.
It will take time to become a standard but it will only become a standard if people start doing it and somebody has to go first.
Hashtags are no silver bullet for the profession but they are a simple, effective way to create a collaborative communication infrastructure. We can't think of a good reason not to do this because all you have to do is type #contemporarydance.