A Skeptic’s Guide to Hashtags
First, disclaimers. (1) I’m new to hashtags; I’ve only used them since I joined Instagram in April. (2) Hashtags have been the hardest part of social media for me to understand. (3) They make me feel old.
So I write this with a built-in bias. Please remember that.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched Google for a meaningful telling of what a hashtag is, what it does, why it does it and when. And still the concept remains amorphous. It’s like a foreign language to me, which is surely a generational thing — though, in fairness, when I ask my sons, they can’t explain them well either.
Best I can gather, a hashtag is a method of connecting with people of like interest. That’s the phrase most often used — “connecting with people of like interest.” Simple enough. But here’s one of my problems right off the bat. Who are these people of like interest? Where are they? Are they writers? Are they women? How old are they? Attempting to answer these questions, I search a particular hashtag before I use it. Whoa. That is enlightening. Some of the people pictured are not people I care to hang out with. I can’t imagine having anything in common with them, much less their wanting to read my books. Some of the posts I see are off-color, others downright offensive. Do I want my posts appearing in the company of those posts?
But, okay. I get it. Gotta find the right hashtags. I do Instagram to connect with readers. So #books or #summerreading or #ilovebooks are good hashtags for me to use. See? I’m making progress.
The articles I’ve read tout using hashtags as a great way to bulk up the number of “likes” a post gets. So, is that what matters — the number of likes I get?
Well, it is. Kind of. At least, when you’re using Instagram for work, as I am. My publisher’s guru touts hashtags as a way to add followers and, hopefully, new readers for my books. In this sense, likes do matter, but I’ll only get them if I use the right hashtags. For books like Family Tree and Sweet Salt Air, both of which showcase knitting, using hashtags like #yarn or #knitting or #knittersofinstagram could get word of my books to someone who shares an interest in yarn and therefore might like these books.
Same with pets. #Dogs, #cats, #petsofinstagram, #goldenretriever – if my book has a dog or a cat, this lets animal lovers know it. Same with plants. Or pancakes.
There’s sex in my books. But I could never, ever use #sex. Can you imagine the kinds of posts using that hashtag? Euwww. #Love or #family might be a little sweeter, but the sheer number of posts under those ones makes them counterproductive. For instance, there are more than 900 million posts with #love, which means that my post will be instantly lost, buried by newer posts, then newer posts again. #Family is only slightly better with 172 million, #sisters with 30 million, #marriage with 4 million posts. Why use a hashtag at all, with those kinds of odds?
Better, I’ve found, to use hashtags with between 1,000 and 300,000 Instagram posts. These numbers may be arbitrary on my part. But they feel right to me. Also, the more specific a hashtag, the better. For instance, #siblingrivalry, with its 98,000 posts, is a better one for me than #siblings, with its 7 million posts, if my goal is to be seen by people who may find my books interesting.
I’ve actually come to appreciate hashtags in two contexts, neither of which I learned online. First, they can add vital information to a caption. Take this one that I posted in July. The image was of one of my oldies, The Woman Next Door, and the caption read, “5 years ago this month came The Woman Next Door. It remains one of my favorites, as timely now as then. Have you read it? #neighbors #culdesac #pregnancy #who is the father.” Used here, hashtags tell what the story is about. So that’s one thing.
A second is pure fun. When I posted a shot of my granddaughter sitting in dejection at the lake, I wrote: “Uh oh. Time out lake-style. #didntlastlong #shestoosweet.” When I posted a shot of the French toast I was eating for breakfast, I wrote: “Saturday morning. Wolfeboro NH. French toast! #waymorecaloriesthanfennel.”
Bottom line? Hashtags are cute. They can be clever. Sometimes they may even be useful. Certainly they they can make a post look hip. Do I need them? Occasionally. Do I want them? Not often. Do I still, yet, fully understand them? Never.
How ‘bout you? Do you love ‘em, hate ‘em, use ‘em, need ‘em, want ‘em?