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Making a hash of hashtags

John Murray

It’s almost difficult to remember what we used the hash (#) sign for before Twitter came along. Traditionally denoting a number, while also appearing as one of the keys on a phone, the symbol is now most readily associated with the social media phenomenon of ‘hashtagging’. This is the idea of creating trends by bracketing a number of tweets or posts under one short phrase.

Recent examples on Twitter have included  #BringBackClarkson, as petrolheads fiercely campaign for the BBC to overturn the suspension handed out to controversy-courting Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, despite having no knowledge of why he was suspended.

While these can help to create a healthy buzz about a topic, particularly in business, they can also lead to embarrassment and attention for all the wrong reasons if an unfortunate double meaning arises. Sadly for Penguin Books UK, this was something that caught them out on March 9th.

With Mother’s Day on the way, Penguin ran a quite innocent campaign offering book suggestions to followers who tweeted using #YourMum. You may remember from school, however, that “your mum”, “yo mama” or “yer ma” (as we say in the North West) is commonly used as a putdown, and the publisher soon found itself swamped with silly but creative maternal insults.

Another possible cause of faux pas is the fact that hashtags need to be written as one word, and the lack of spaces can cause a tag to be read differently. Consider #susanalbumparty, cooked up by singer Susan Boyle’s social media team. If you’re pure of mind, you might have gathered that this was simply a celebration of SuBo’s new album. A lot of Twitter users formed an entirely different conclusion though, causing red faces among the singer’s PR team.

Then again, in an era when there’s often a fine line between positive and negative publicity, it could be argued that both Boyle and Penguin received far wider attention for these apparent Twitter cockups than they would have done if they hadn’t been misinterpreted. Is this corporative naivety or an ingenious form of marketing that appeals to the sniggering schoolchild in all of us?

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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