The #hash economy

hastBack in the late 90’s I started noticing URLs at the end of many TV advertisements. They started as general company URLs (and were relatively infrequent) and eventually because almost ubiquitous  leading not just to company home pages but eventually to product pages or other ares of a company’s site were one could get more information about whatever was being hocked on TV (or in a magazine, etc.). Fast forward a few years and we saw the same phenomenon with brands and their Facebook pages. And then Twitter. These were/are great ways for brands to get more information to people interested in their products. And to some extent through Twitter and Facebook “engage” with people so inclined to interact in that way with the producers of products they like and use.

Now we’re seeing something pretty different and I’m interested to see where it goes (and have been thinking from an investment perspective for ways to participate in it as a growing trend). What I’m referring to (which will be obvious to anyone who read the title of this post) is the emergence of the #hashtag. You see it everywhere now. And not just on advertisements, but anywhere people are trying to drive a group conversation – at the end of magazine articles, during TV shows, sporting events, cable new channels. The #hash’s are generally topic related, not brand related (CNN isn’t pushing the #CNN hash but instead pushing #Election2012; we’ll all be tweeting about #superbowl this Sunday, etc.).

And like a lot of things in this new era of the internet the #hash economy is much more democratic. No one “owns” a #hashtag and the conversation is both easy to follow and easy to participate in (for example not limited just to one social platform). I think this kind of democratization of the internet is really interesting to follow. We’ve moved from platforms for people to broadcast out, to one where people could self organize into communities (but where these communities were still somewhat siloed) to one where we’re creating horizontal overlays to the internet that allow for much broader dissemination of information and that support more free flowing communities of interest (where both the participants in the community are free flowing but also the communities themselves).

I’m not entirely sure where this will take us, but I love the notion that barriers to participation are falling and as a result more and more people are able to interact and create content. The bar for that participation has been lowered massively and the old 80/19/1 paradigm (80% passive consumers/19% responders/ 1% creators of content) has been completely flipped on its head. I’d love your thoughts on this subject as it’s been knocking around in my head for a while but I’m not sure I’ve reached any definitive conclusions about where this is heading and what that means.

  • brgardner

    I completely agree that “The bar for that participation has been lowered massively”, however, “the old 80/19/1 paradigm (80% passive consumers/19% responders/ 1% creators of content) has been completely flipped on its head” seems to be an overstatement. Even though these numbers might have shifted there is still a large majority that are passive consumers and responders. In essence the hash tag was created for the responder, not the content generator. It is interesting to me how the science community is using # to identify the outbreak of sicknesses and diseases through people responses. Being able to sift through # and create objective conclusions seems to be a great opportunity.

    • I don’t agree that the #hashtag was created for the responder. I think the content creator benefits immensely from the ability to essentially create an open forum for communication on a topic that they’re helping to direct. One of the powers of the #hashtag is that it really is a two way street. “Flipped on its head” wasn’t intented to be taken literally (i.e., that 99% of people are now content creators and responders). Of course the 80/19/1 concept was never fully validated – more of an accepted generalization for behavior on the web. I do think that has been flipped upside down. The are a over 100M US Twitter accounts. That’s a lot of creators (and that’s just one medium)!

      • brgardner

        Maybe it is a difference of semantics, but I would be interested to know if the industry qualifies just having a Twitter account (or other medium) as a content creator. In my opinion it does not. What does qualify as content? I would also be interested to know how many tweets/FB Posts are the in response to others content (link, RT, Hashtag).

        You have to ask yourself why that community created the hashtag? Was it created so people could pull together their collective experience/thoughts of an event, function, mood, etc? Was it made to create responders and organize there responses in a quasi forum? (The collective of those responses creates powerful information which might
        have interesting investment opportunities for you). Maybe the collective response is the content that you are referring to. But then again, I don’t know what the industry defines as true content.

        • I don’t think its semantics – we’re just having a difference of opinion on this. I do think that having a Twitter account (or FB or whatever) qualifies one as a content creator. We can debate how much of that content is worthwhile but these platforms have fundamentally democratized the internet by lowering the barrier to creating content (think how much harder it was when you needed to put up a website and use one of the CSS’s that existed 15 years ago, then how much easier it got when content management systems became easier to use, then when there were hosted solutions, then when commenting became ubiquitous, etc.). I’m not making a value judgement on the quality of the content (I’d say that plenty of “content” on cable isn’t worth consuming for instance, but that doesn’t mean it’s not content). And one of the great thing about the #hash economy is that you don’t even need to have any followers to participate in the conversation. I’m glad you’re pushing back, however – this is helpful to furthering the conversation.

  • It would be so interesting if you can build a platform/dashboard that allows anyone to pull out conversations by #hashtag ACROSS social platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc.). Unfortunately I don’t think you can access data from these networks in such way (or can you?)….

    Another thought related to the #hashtag discussion – I wonder why there’s no way to “define” the hashtag you’re creating/using and a directory for explanation. Most of them are self explanatory, but some aren’t. For example, if my professors can put a 140-character definition on some kind of public “hashtag bulletin board” (maybe exists on the same platform as above) to explain that #HBSLTV is for the “Launching Technology Ventures” class at HBS, people who’re outside of the organization can then understand and benefit from the conversations.

    • Yes and no on the first question. In some cases you have to be authenticated to the user account to pull data (and connected to the other accounts in question). But the idea is the right way to think of it. How do we abstract the #hash layer on the internet. Kind of like a for #hashtags (but with many more participants and a communication layer not just a tagging layer). Hashtag “creep” is what you’re describing below. That’s a hard one – one of the beauties of the #hash economy is that it’s unstructured. But that’s also one of it’s biggest challenges (how many times have I been somewhere where there were two or three #hashes flying around tagging the same event…).

  • One of the most challenging elements I’ve seen of this hashtag economy (dig the name) is identifying the key moments (singular statements, side conversations, etc.) of outsized value. We know that people are inspired to create content and add value to the hashtag economy but we can’t always surface those nuggets of data that brands, organizations, people, etc. are most excited about.

    There are a lot of companies who are starting to do really great things at the aggregate level (Foundry Group is right there in the mix) the more local level is challenging. The conversations that some classes generate on Twitter using hashtags (I think of Fred Wilson’s experience at HBS) should be replicable and scalable at a global level.

    When you start combining new types of media (people recording a response, shooting a vine, a video, a picture, etc.) the challenge becomes even greater but so does the value/reward.

    • Great comment. Totally agree that something’s missing here. #hash is one dimension but location, time, etc. are other dimensions that we should be able to cut across when exploring this economy (glad you like that term). I’ve got some ideas here for how this could work, but they’re still only partially formed in my head…

  • DJ

    I haven’t noticed the hashtag as much as

    Which is amazing to me. Facebook has basically reinvented the AOL keyword from the outside in. I’ve pondered the idea of businesses that can exist entirely in social media i.e. without a web site. Small law firms and accountancies could likely just have a LinkedIn presence, for example.

    • It is true how “back to the future” Facebook is. AOL created a great walled garden only to watch it’s market power completely eroded away as people moved to the more free-form (but broader) internet. Facebook has to some extent reigned this back into a walled garden again (although they’ve done a better job of pulling in content from around the web). And ironically Facebook won over Friendster, MySpace and others because it’s UI was more rigid and allowed for less variance (most Facebook pages looked essentially the same) – they correctly figured out that people wanted that consistency of experience more than they wanted total and complete flexibility (again, a la AOL).

  • If only AOL had put a # in front of their AOL Keywords the world may have been #different 🙂

    • i’m sure they’re kicking themselves now wondering how it is that someone else managed to co-opt their perfect walled garden!

  • A lot also depends on google search. because of the + in google plus…things will change. Now $GOOG or any $ is searchable on google and the $ whicch stocktwits started is also outside the walls of stocktwits and twitter.