If you’re a regular social media user, the hashtag (#) has become part and parcel of your online language. For the uninitiated, hashtags enable people to search for a topic of interest, or follow a breaking news story on social media platforms. A word or short phrase (without spaces) is prefixed with the number sign “#” (aka the hashtag) and posted in a tweet or photo upload. Once enough people use the same hashtag all content and conversations relating to the topic are then conveniently grouped within that hashtag, which then allows the user to follow other people’s postings or messages relating to that topic. For example, during the Oscar Pistorius trial the following hashtags were used: #OscarPistorius or #OscarTrial. By simply clicking on either of these hashtags or searching for them, the hashtag would lead the user directly to all the conversations relating to the trail.
The use of hashtags on social media started around 2007 and quickly gained popularity. But the real turning point was in 2009 when Twitter began to hyperlink all hashtags that people had posted in their tweets to Twitter search results. This enabled users to find, and go directly to a conversation or topic. This lead to the now common concept of “Trending Topics”, which are measured by hashtags that are being used the most on the Twitter platform.
Since then, the role of hashtags has evolved even further. As its core function is to direct people to a common conversation, it was inevitable that hashtags would be used to mobilize people for socio-political causes. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 was a perfect example. Battered by a prolonged recession, residents of New York City (mostly young millennials) began protesting about the greed and corruption of the financial services sectors, as well as the influence large corporations had with government. #occupywallstreet became, not only the rallying hashtag for the protestors, but also the conduit of information for the somewhat disjointed crowds who wanted to take part in the protests.
The most recent, and possibly now the most well known, hashtag campaign is #bringbackourgirls, which started in response to the 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Ironically, Boko Haram responded with their own hashtag – #bringbackourboys – a reference to their detained members who’s freedom they were fighting for, and the reason they kidnapped the schoolgirls.
So while “hashtag activism” has become a new form of armchair protest and mobilization, the commercialisation of social media appears to be the next wave. Now you can shop using twitter and hashtags. The concept of social media commerce is in its embryonic stages, but is no doubt going to grow and evolve faster than you can type 140 characters.
Amazon, the online retail behemoth, has just introduced a new service that provides a glimpse of where social media commerce is going. If you have an Amazon account (and in the future most people on the planet are bound to have one) and also follow their twitter feed, you will receive notifications of new products being launched via their tweets. Should you be interested in a product, but are unsure of committing to the purchase or simply too busy to log into your account, you simply retweet that particular tweet and add the #amazoncart hashtag. Amazon then places that product immediately in your shopping cart, which you can then revisit at your convenience, and confirm or delete the item from your cart. It is an ingenious way of getting people to shop, not only impulsively but also while on the run.
Another forward thinking company is Starbucks, who are also dabbling with social media commerce. Their concept does not involve the use of hashtags but also uses twitter as a vehicle. Last year they introduced their “tweet a coffee” service, which is as ingenious as Amazon’s #amazoncart concept. If you are signed up to Starbuck’s pre-payment scheme (over 3 million people already have these accounts, which operates much like a debit card), you are able to buy a coffee for a friend just by using twitter. All you do is send a “tweet a coffee” message, with your friend’s twitter handle in the message, and he or she can redeem their coffee – at any Starbucks outlet, anywhere in the world – by simply showing the staff a Starbucks your tweet, and that coffee is then debited from your account.
These commercial applications for social media are still few and far between but signal an important shift in how social media is going to be used in the not too distant future. Twitter, in particular, has become both an effective social media platform for breaking news, but unfortunately, also a cyberspace refuge for twitter trolls who just want to vent or spew venom. Adding a shopping function to social media might just restore the more pleasant “social” aspect to these platforms.
By: Dion Chang
Image credit: Gallo Images