Why Facebook’s hashtags are a big fat #fail

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Today Facebook announced that hashtags will be rolling out across its service. Big whoop.

Okay, it’ll be great news for those who insist on pushing their Twitter feed directly to Facebook. Or those using hashtags in their status updates as a communications device. After all #FML conveys sentiment a lot better, and in a trendier way, than just using a good old :(

Nonetheless, its usefulness – I predict – will be short lived. We live in an age where privacy is becoming a bigger issue every day. In recent weeks we’ve seen many South Africans starting to notice – and feel the effects of – cloned profiles on Facebook. The age-old scam relies on people being gullible or uninformed enough to part with private information. Your seemingly innocuous profile photo and full name are very powerful tools in the information age, but add details of your schooling, relationships, and more, and suddenly scammers have a very powerful resource for identity theft. And there’s plenty reason to want to be you.

As a result, people have been told to tighten their security settings so that the general public, and identity-stealing scammers, cannot access that basic information.

How does this affect Facebook’s hashtag implementation?

Twitter, which is a public resource, makes hashtags work because when you use #E32013 in my tweets, those tweets get collected along with tweet from others users who used #E32013 in their tweets. Clicking on it will collate all #E32013 tweets in a single place. Now you can see the internet public’s collective thoughts on E3 2013. Wonderful.

Similarly, Facebook’s hashtags will rely on public interaction. Posting about #GameofThrones in your next status update should, theoretically include it with the millions of other updates about the same topic. Except if you have your privacy screwed tight. In which case it won’t. Your thoughts won’t be included in the public pool. You’ll be hashtagging for an echo chamber.

The social networks want us to share our data with the public. It makes for a richer information experience, after all. But at the same time online criminals – and just general privacy – is keeping the public from participating.

Ultimately, Facebook will still have a rich stream of data for its advertisers. Tracking hashtag usage – regardless of whether your posts are viewable to the public – is the information that Facebook trades in. Whether more people will start, and continue, using hashtags outside of Twitter is a free gamble, and it’s got nothing to lose.

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Christo van Gemert

Christo van Gemert

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.