The comeback of hashtags

Social media in emergency management (SMEM) is evolving again. The comeback of hashtags is a major change in 2016.

While hashtags were popular a while ago on Twitter, there was a time when they were less relevant for traffic collation. We think the sudden revival of hashtags is mainly due to their popularity on Instagram, where hashtags are the only way to search content. The Victorian public have become familiar with clicking on hashtags to find traffic they're interested in.

Hashtags are now being used to search all kinds of social media - not just Twitter and Instagram. They're being used more often on Facebook now, and the younger generations are right up with this trend. We recently conducted a poll on Facebook, and the results showed Millennium and Generation Y were the most familiar with finding traffic using hashtags:

The way people often search for information about an emergency in their area is to simply do a search for their town name (or the town they think the emergency is in). If the emergency is impacting on their area, they will hopefully find a post with the job hashtag. Once they click on the hashtag, they should find all the traffic related to their emergency. We've learned to set the hashtag early - in the first Tweet or post, if ABC Emergency haven't done it already! Other people will follow suit. In this way, Victorians are able to find information on social media about emergencies. The #VicFires hashtag is a broader hashtag which generally includes all major Victorian fires, but the job stream for a given emergency will be defined by one single hashtag. Where a clear hashtag doesn't yet exist, the job stream is a search conducted of the town or job name.

Where posts from authorities don't make it to the job stream, it helps if an SMEM operator redirects traffic by tagging it with the appropriate hashtags and search terms. This helps the public find the post even if they are not 'following' the authority involved. This is a key technique used by VOST Victoria to amplify traffic from authorities.

Some guidelines for setting hashtags:

  • The job name will nearly always be the location of the job (town name).
  • Don't abbreviate town names or job names. Don't drop the word 'The'. Use the whole name - Eg. #TheGurdies.
  • Don't use nicknames. (There will always be exceptions to this rule - use common sense.)
  • Where a town name is the name of the job and it consists of two words, run both words together - eg. #CribPoint, #WyeRiver.
  • Don't use multiple hashtags for the same job as people may click on the wrong hashtag and miss traffic. Check to see if there is already a job hashtag before making a new one.
  • Check the hashtag is clear of noise before deploying it. A job in Sale, Gippsland, cannot use the hashtag #Sale !! It could use #SaleFire, but we can't use #FireSale...
  • What would you add to this list? Please tell us!

Facebook have an algorithm for handling hashtags which we suspect is based on interest and relevance much like a normal news feed. The difference is that public posts from accounts the user doesn't follow will appear. We're keen to understand the way hashtags work on Facebook and the work the Facebook team have done studying hashtag use. We've sent Facebook a message, and we're waiting on a response.

One could argue that hashtags have always been important on Twitter, and this is true. But hashtags are now being used in unlikely places, and this is great for the collation of emergency traffic.

Brad Lemon
31st January 2016

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