Semiotics and the #Hashtag

3 Henry Kingston

Image of HashtagA basic definition of the term semiotics is ‘the study of signs’, however for this article the definition is extremely appropriate. The hashtag, a symbol which has been used by society for only a meagre amount of time, has evolved rapidly over the past few years, becoming a complex sign well worth studying.

For those that have not previously heard of the term semiotics; it was first coined by linguistic academics including Ferdinand Saussure, Charles Sanders Pierce and Roland Barthes at the beginning of the twentieth century, when post modernism was becoming increasingly popular. Dismissing what had previously been believed about language and its connection with the human psyche, Saussure, Pierce and Barthes broke down the hegemony of language and its meaning to human beings.

The semiotic theory is based upon the premise that all language is just a series of signs, each of which is associated with a ‘meaning’, a meaning which is then adhered to without question. Feelings, beliefs and emotions are all associated with certain words and phrases, making language a way of not only expressing ourselves but also a means to determine expected human emotions and actions.

So what does this have to do with the hashtag? Since Twitter started using it to group together conversations on the same subject, the way in which users have incorporated it into their tweets has changed drastically. Here is just one example:


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In this tweet the hashtag is used not as a way to include others in a conversation, or group the tweet in with those of a similar subject, but as a way for the user to express their personality. This is a very common phenomenon on Twitter these days, with many users often adding hashtags to describe who they are, including #digitalmarketinggeek, #gymaddict, #foodlover, or anything else for that matter.

We are also seeing hashtags being used more often to symbolise sarcasm, such as in the following tweet:


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By using the hashtag, it’s more obvious to the recipient of the tweet that the user is trying to be sarcastic, however without its use this may not be possible. In short, this means Twitter users are more inclined to look at the meaning behind certain words or phrases if there is a hashtag symbol placed in front of them. The hashtag therefore acts as a way to tell people to pay closer attention, and to give bigger meaning to phrases that come after it compared to other words in the tweet.

To further highlight the importance of the hashtag, there are even tweets which would not make sense without them, such as:


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Even though the term “Oh no.” is understandable, without the affixed “#rain”, those reading the above tweet would have little understanding as to what is causing the user’s disappointment.
The importance of all this to digital marketers is that tweets are becoming more complex, and can be easily interpreted in different ways depending on how you use hashtags. For companies trying to build up their brand image, hashtags can therefore be a minefield, as once used incorrectly you can forever be labelled as rude, ignorant, or simply inexperienced at using Twitter.

A good way to avoid a Twitter PR disaster is to get to know your target demographic and the way in which they typically use hashtags. Most Twitter accounts are open to the public, and with some research you will eventually be able to find and analyse conversations between those in your target demographic and industry. However, beware: hashtags are often used as a way for people to have in-jokes, so never try to copy their style if you do not fully understand it, or it will reveal that you have been actively monitoring users’ conversations.

Once you have determined the best way to use hashtags when attempting to attract your target demographic, you will more than likely find that users will be more inclined to interact with you, or virtually welcome you into their group. Don’t forget that it’s likely you will have to employ hashtags in a variety of ways in order to attract and retain target users, so never rely on just one version and keep testing new ideas on a frequent basis.

The hashtag is just one simple sign, however its uses in social media campaigns is complex and varied, meaning that even something as small as a single symbol can be the difference between a successful social media campaign and spending your time wondering why you can’t attract your target demographic.