Dear Hashtag Abusers: Stop it. JUST STOP IT. Thanks, the Enterprise.

Community Managers in the enterprise all remember the time when hashtags were daunting, confusing aspects of communication in a corporate social network. Back in 2008 and 2009, I was often asked if that feature could be turned off so as to avoid scaring less tech-savvy users with these “words that go next to a number sign.” Many social software buyers were convinced that hashtags were just too advanced for typical enterprise employees.My, how times have changed.

Today, hashtags have actually started to become a problem inside some enterprise social networks. Hashtags were once a simple, useful way to classify information and quickly find relevant posts from other users. Common hashtags in an enterprise social network were as simple as #marketing, #sales, or #training. In time, they became more specific and colloquial, like #budgeting2012 and #AcmeCorpDeal.

But over the past year, employees have evolved their understanding of tags and subsequently their usage behavior; users have collectively converted tags into superfluous add-ons to their posts with the intent of creating after-the-fact, unspoken sentiment. I call them “Contextual Tags” because they only add sentiment and not a lot of value. These tags serve no purpose other than to denote an employee’s emotion, opinion or veiled sentiment. Whereas traditional tags were (and still are) used for the benefit of all other users’ searching and categorizing activities, the tags being adopted today are added onto messages because the poster believes that they are funny, cute, special, witty, and creative.

The transformation and deprecation of hashtags is actually mind boggling when you really think about it. Because of widespread hashtag adoption in consumer social networks, we have seen a complete shift in the business value of this technology feature – from a community-focused, collaborative method of sharing data to an inwardly gratifying, amusing and mostly selfish way of conveying inside jokes or feelings to those who can read-in to a tag’s subtle meaning.

The evolution of the hashtag in the workplace was something that couldn’t be avoided, and there are still contextual hashtags that I believe are acceptable. Employees will denote pride and happiness by adding #Ilovemyjob or #congratulations to posts, or even more fun, teambuilding tags like #marketingrocks or #communityspirit. It’s the negative, sarcastic and passive aggressive tags that are problematic, from #Itoldyouso and #yeahright to the inside jokes like #yikes, which is similar to a curation of posts in an actual enterprise social community where users aggregated unintended sexual or accidentally inappropriate messages with this hashtag for fun. Funny to some, yes, but think about the compliance headaches that this could cause should legal get wind of this.

So what should community managers and companies do to combat abusive hashtags inside their enterprise social networks? Ultimately it depends upon your culture and what you’re comfortable with, but here are a few recommendations for managing hashtag use.

  • Create an appropriate hashtag use guide in your social media policyand yourtraining materials. All new users should be introduced to appropriate guidelines, and existing users should be given access to new rules and recommendations.
  • In many social tools, hashtags are aggregated onto a “page” or “topic” where users describe their meaning. Regularly delete any tags that don’t have a description, or whose description seems questionable. I advise talking to heavy users of the tag first if possible to make sure that you don’t take something out of context or use a heavy hand.
  • Ask leaders and social influencers to demonstrate appropriate hash tag use in their posts.
  • Trust your gut. If you see a hashtag that doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. If you don’t understand the meaning investigate the posts to which it’s attached. First, ask the meaning of the tag directly. If it’s not acceptable, ask users of the tag to please remove the tag from their posts by a certain date in order to preserve the message content without the tag. After the deadline, feel free to delete posts where users haven’t complied.
  • Celebrate corporate events and milestones with hashtags and consider bringing them outside of the social network. For example, SAS celebrates its anniversary of The Hub with a #lovethehub event and hashtag. Other companies adopt similar tags and promote them through non-digital formats to drive users to the social network. This helps users understand how hashtags are used by the company at large.

What other methods of managing hashtag-mania can you share? Do you have any specific examples of good or bad hashtag experiences? Share them below!

Photo Credit (top) - Nightmare Hashtag Project

 (flickrcc.net)

Photo Credit (bottom) - Hashtag Series

 (flickrcc.net)