So you’ve joined Twitter and have finally started to get the hang of things. You know to put an "@" sign in front of usernames for public replies and you know how to send private messages with a "d." You filled out your profile and have mastered the art of TinyURLs. You even found some interesting people to follow and have started conversations with them. There’s just one thing holding you back from complete Twittervana: those odd-looking abbreviations in people’s tweets preceded by the pound sign (#). Congratulations, you’ve stumbled upon the Twitter hashtag, a tracking tool for Twitter topics. But what do they mean?
Hashtags in Twitter are a community-driven convention for adding metadata to your tweets. They were originally developed to create groups on Twitter for tracking a topic. Initially, they only worked in combination with a service from hashtags.org which provides real-time hashtag tracking. All you had to do was opt-in by following Twitter user @hashtags.
Now, with Twitter’s purchase of search engine Summize, Twitter itself tracks hashtags at search.twitter.com. The engine can actually track keywords too, making hashtags not quite as necessary for trend tracking as they were in the past. However, hashtags still have their advantages – you know that anyone tagging their tweet with one of these acronyms means for it to get categorized within that topic. It also serves as a visual indicator to others following their Twitter stream that they’re tweeting about a particular subject.
The basic structure of a hashtag is simple: it’s the pound sign (#) followed by an acronym or word. For example, the hashtag #sxsw recently appeared for tracking the annual festival in Austin, Texas called South by Southwest.
But What Does that Hashtag Mean?
The problem for new Twitter users (and many old pros too) is that the use of hashtags has become so prevalent that it’s hard to keep track of what they all stand for. And with new ones popping up every day for the most obscure of subjects, there’s no way to guess at their meaning. Sometimes, even hot topics get tagged with odd hashtags that may leave you scratching your head. Did you know, for instance, that the tag #nSOTU is used for tracking any Presidential speech from Barack Obama that’s Not the State of the Union address?
Although you can still look up a particular hashtag at hashtags.org, the site doesn’t explain what the tag means. (It does, however, point you to photos, videos, and links in addition to tracking the stream.)
But if you just want to know what the heck people are talking about, a new resource may be a better option for you: Tagalus, a service that defines hashtags. Think of it as a hashtag dictionary. You can use Tagalus to understand what hashtags mean and see the latest tweets surrounding that subject.
How to Use Tagalus
Tagalus lets users vote on definitions for tags if there’s more than one version. The definition with the most votes will be the one that defines the tag. As you invent new tags or if you just want to help build the resource, all you have to do is send a tweet to @tagalus to suggest a meaning for a tag. The format for doing so is as follows:
Example: @tagalus define mynewtag as a new tag that describes everything about me
If you want to know what a tag means, you can also ask @tagalus. The format for this is: @tagalus define ______.
Example: @tagalus define ip4
In this example, Tagalus would respond:
ip4 = Ignite Portland 4 – a "hipster event" according to KGW
The Tagalus API
The ProgrammableWeb blog also notes that Tagalus has an API which developers could use to build hashtag defining functionality into their Twitter client applications. That would make the service even more useful to the Twitter community, so we hope developers take notice and do just that.