The Wall Street Journal has reported that Facebook will incorporate hashtags into its site. “By incorporating hashtags,” the story says, “Facebook would be able to quickly index conversations so that conversations can build around topics.”
The play here is obvious: Twitter dominates conversations around news and live events, helped in part by hashtags, which give users a place to congregate (and in turn gives advertisers captive audience of very eager users). Facebook, despite its larger user base, isn’t a great destination for breaking news — fast-moving stories on Facebook tend to lag behind Twitter (admittedly smaller) audience.
Twitter might portray this as flattery-by imitation, if it really wants to assume that pose. It might also see it as a boon: for now, at least, the hashtag is associated almost exclusively with Twitter. People might not know exactly what hashtags are, or how they work, but they know that when they see a hashtag on CNN, it has something to do with tweets. If Facebook fumbles this, then, it could end up being little more than a billion-user Twitter education campaign. (It’s worth noting that Instagram, which Facebook acquired, uses hashtags as well.)
But if Facebook incorporates hashtags in a Twitter-type way, and truly bets on them, it will have much wider implications for how the site works. For a news conversation or a second-screen hashtag to function on Facebook — that is, to attract a large, wide, live audience — the site will need to serve its posts in a much more open way. It will need, in other words, to make your public posts truly public.
Today, if you post a status update on your public profile, that status is available to anyone who visits your profile directly or subscribes to your updates. It is, in a very strict sense, available to anyone.
But it’s not as public as a tweet, which is designed to be discovered not just by your followers but by people you don’t know. Aside from retweets, there’s a public search function and the “Discover” tag, where tweets, often centered around hashtags, are surfaced to wider audiences. The only time Facebook has had a true public search function was through a 3rd-party site called OpenBook, which Facebook shut down over a year ago.
In making your personal posts available in a centralized public feed, even through an optional hashtag, Facebook would be surfacing them in an unprecedented way. It wouldn’t technically be a privacy violation — Facebook seems to employ a very literal definition of that phrase, along the lines of “does not technically break our contract with users” — but neither was Graph Search which, by instantly surfacing data that was previously public but took effort to find, changed the very nature of that data (and creeped some people out). As I said at the time:
With Graph Search, information that used to exist within a user’s page now exists outside it, in any number of search queries. It’s no less “private,” to use the very strict, Facebookian definition of the world. But it’s far more accessible, and much more visible. The information’s place in the world, the way in which people can find it, has changed. Making data searchable fundamentally changes what kind of data it is.
If Facebook’s hashtag plan comes to fruition, it could draw a long-lost type of user, the news junkie, back to Facebook. If it’s in fact a much narrower appropriation of the hashtag (say, a way to sort posts from people already in your News Feed) then it wouldn’t change the service at all, nor would it offer Facebook many of the hashtag’s advantages. Despite the vastly disparate sizes of their user bases, Twitter and Facebook are obvious competitors: they both have valuable relationship graphs that they need to leverage into money from advertisers.
But in the process of adding hashtags, Facebook could change what it feels like to be on Facebook. Truly public posting has always been part of the deal with Twitter; posts are short, tagged, and directed not just to your followers but to the entire network. Not so much with Facebook, where posts are longer and written in more familiar language, with little regard for broader context. And its users, temperamental as they are, and fully aware that post-IPO Facebook is hunting for new ways to make money from them, might not like that.
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