Are you overusing hashtags? Away with these ugly, scratchy bits of computer code, which are too often used as a substitute for real conversational content.

Award-winning journalist Gus Silber, who has a special interest in social media, guest blogs for Spitfire Inbound about hashtags - which he calls “ugly, scratchy bits of computer code” that have no place in the social sphere. Read more for his take.

A friend of mine recently started printing T-shirts as a sideline, and in exchange for providing a few suggestions for the name of her business, she said I could have a T-shirt of my own. Yay! I asked if I could have a T-shirt with a hashtag on it, and she said, sure, hashtag-what? No, just the hashtag, I said, nice and big across the front, like this: #.

I wear my hashtag T-shirt in public every now and again, and it always attracts a few wary smiles of approval, unless I am misinterpreting bemused glances of pity.

Either way, until a few years ago, the use of hashtags was strictly confined to bookkeeping ledgers and the faces of telephones: “Please enter the Pound key,” the voice would say, at which point you would desperately search for the Pound key, before giving it a pound. Now, of course, hashtags are very much in fashion. No campaign, whether to elect a President, fill up a stadium, save the orangutan, or sell a new line of toiletries, is complete without a hashtag, so allow me to start a hashtag campaign of my own: #HashtagsMustFall.

It’s not that I have anything personal against hashtags, aside from the fact that they are ugly, scratchy bits of computer code, so needy in the way they sit there in their underlinable blueness and beg to be clicked. But why should I?

To click on a hashtag, whatever the brand or cause, is to chase myself away from the very reason I choose to use social media in the first place, which is: to connect and engage.

When you slap a hashtag on your post, you are, in effect, inviting me to trigger my itchy click-finger and go somewhere else, to disconnect and disengage from the content of your post, because — and #ThisIsImportant — hashtags are not content.

I will grant you that a hashtag can be a very useful signpost for navigation, theming, or tuning in to a topic, which is why, at the start of any seminar or conference these days, first among the housekeeping announcements will be which hashtag you should use with your tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook updates.

Even then, there is no guarantee that your audience will use your recommended barb as a hook - as FIFA discovered to their cost when hordes of tweeters refused to use the official FIFA tag during the 2010 World Cup.

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It is worth remembering that hashtags, as a social media convention, are a user-invention: Chris Messina, a product designer working in Silicon Valley, first suggested the # as a way of organising topics on the then-fledgling network, Twitter, in 2007.

That made sense, even if Twitter, at the time, rejected his proposition as “too nerdy”. But that was before the brands and the politicians and the marketers swooped in, their outstretched talons shaped just like, you know: #.

But you know what really gets me about hashtags? I’ll tell you. Hashtags. Lots and lots of hashtags.

One at a time I can more or less handle, but I’ve just paid a visit to Instagram, my favourite social network, and on one sponsored post, I counted 30 hashtags. Thirty! Including, for some bizarre reason, #Instagram, which is the equivalent of standing right inside a house while searching for the address of the house on Google Maps.

#Please, I’m #AskingYouNicely, don’t use #MultipleHashtags on #SocialMedia, and if you really must use a singular hashtag, make it unique and memorable and a strong call to action.

But most of all, make your hashtag a complement to content, not a replacement for content, and strive to make your content, always, interesting and useful and an inducement to conversation. #ThankYou!

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*Gus Silber, otherwise known as @gussilber, is a journalist, author, scriptwriter, speechwriter, tweet writer, and media trainer.

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