The first time I encountered a hashtag on Twitter I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I understood that adding a # symbol to a word or abbreviation created a more specific search string, but that was back before the days of Twitter Search. The concept was cool, but it didn't have powerfully practical applications.
But here we are, less than a year later, and nine of us (including representatives from three news outlets and Lowcountry Bloggers) just sat down and agreed on a set of nine preferred hashtags for local news. Now that's progress.
The #CHS prefix
While Charleston County and Charleston the city are only geographical subsets of a larger community/media market generally known as the Lowcountry, we went with the tag #CHS to describe it. Reason? Because using our airport code is an efficient, already popular way of communicating a general location.
With that established, we moved on to subject tags.
The group, working through principles suggested by Janet Edens, agreed that limiting subject tags to four-letter abbreviations was generally a good thing. But it also allowed for common-sense exceptions.
News = #CHSNEWS: A general news category for non-urgent but newsworthy information.
Sports - #CHSSPTS: Any sports-related Tweet, probably used primarily for game scores or breaking news related to sports.
Traffic = #CHSTRFC: We agreed to go more granular on traffic because these reports are such a useful subcategory of Breaking News.
Food = #CHSEATS: The general consensus? Eating and drinking is such a big deal locally that we needed a food category.
Cheap and/or free = #CHSDEAL: Suggested by The Charleston City Paper, this covers a popular category.
Anything cool or fun, coming up or happening live = #CHSCOOL: An interesting scene, a great concert, etc. This is a generic category for happenings.
Every good rule should have exceptions.
Business = #CHSBIZ: We discussed this one early in the meeting but left it off our final list. I'm taking the three-letter tag and promoting it as a non-standard, common-sense usage. It's been used before, it's easy to understand, and it's short.
Want to keep up with the latest preferred tags? Or suggest new ones? Follow CHSHASH on Twitter. And we'll be adding (and linking to) repositories of local terms in multiple places.
For more on this experiment, and why I think this tiny little thing has profound implications for the future of news, read on past the jump...
The concept of hashtagging is simple: Anyone can tag their communication to make it more sortable, and if a user-generated tag catches on, lots of users tag their content. This voluntary cooperation creates a filtered stream of information. A great example? People Twittering from Austin's influential South By Southwest tech-media conference have traditionally tagged their communications #SXSW.
But hashtagging on Twitter didn't become particularly useful until the advent of Twitter Search in 2008. Twitter Search not only lets you search all Tweets in real time, it also provides URLs and RSS feeds for individual search queries. So I can share my search results with you.
Because Twitter Search indexes everything, you don't need a hashtag to make it valuable. The weakness of that approach? General search terms often return too much unrelated content to be of high value. There's a big difference between the results for #sandiegofire and the results for "San Diego."
The magic of a tag like #sandiegofire is that nobody said "Let's organize all the eyewitness information coming out of the emergency." People just did it, and that viral hashtag filtered the live flow of reports from the disaster into the mainstream news media. But that success story also obscures the weakness of hashtagging: If you used or searched the terms "#sandiegofires" or "#SDfires" instead, you missed the boat.
Which brings us to today's Charleston News Hashtag Summit. If local news content producers and local Tweeters could generally agree on a set of preferred hastags, then anyone could display a live RSS feed of all Tweets on a subject, regardless of source. Not only that, but we could then create robots to retweet anything that uses that term. Result? If you set your alerts for the #CHSTRFC robot (and yes, there's one in the works), then your phone will receive a text message whenever someone reports a traffic problem.
It means that I could configure a widget right now around the tag #CHSBRKG and display the latest local news on my blog. Right now I'm pretty much limited to doing that around a single branded news source, but I don't really care about that: I just want the latest news, and I want it from whoever has it.
Which is the revolutionary concept within this simple, cooperative step. Because by agreeing to share the same hashtags, we are creating a series of online news channels that BELONG TO EVERYONE. Nobody owns #CHSBRKG. And we all benefit from sharing it.
Could people abuse this system? Absolutely. Could a news provider choose to use an entirely different set of tags? Of course. But we should remember that the benefits of cooperation far outweigh any advantage one might pursue by refusing to participate. If people follow #CHSBRKG and you decide to tag your Tweets #CHSBREAKING, you're invisible to them. As for spammers: Remember that robots can be programmed to exclude abusers.
Participants at the summit considered several ideas before producing this list. Should we make lots of tags or just a few? How granular should they be? What's the proper balance between descriptive clarity and brevity? Should they all have the same number of characters? Should they all end in the same letter? Which is more important: Intuitive meaning or systematic purity?
In the end, we decided that we only needed a few to begin, that intuitive meaning was important, that uniform length was generally better than variable length, and that using non-standard lengths was OK in special, logical cases.
Is that the perfect system? Who knows? It's just the one we agreed upon after discussion.
Not yet resolved
We didn't get to the suggestion by local attorney Cameron Blazer, who recommended we consider a set of more specific geographic codes. But I think we will probably want to consider that idea.
And though we didn't wind up going in this direction, Janet's "X-code" system proposed a naming convention that could provide some subtle advantages for groups that adopt it (particularly as search capabilities improve over time). It's worth considering if you're thinking about trying this in your own town.
Speaking of which, should you? Well, sure. I'm not aware of another attempt to organize a voluntary standard for local media, but there could be one out there, and if you hear of it, please let us know. It's always good to learn from someone else's experience. Meanwhile, we'll keep you posted about ours.
Participants: Josh Curry, The City Paper (@chasCityPaper), Jared Smith (@jaredwmith), Kathy (@katkimjac) and Ian (@Eyebee) May, Janet Edens (@xarkgirl) of The Post and Courier (@postandcourier); Heather Solos (@heathersolos) of Home Ec 101 and Lowcountry Bloggers, Ken Hawkins (@kenhawkins98) and Geoff Marshall (@geofftech) of TheDigitel (@TheDigitel), and Dan Conover (@xarker). Expressed regrets: Charleston Regional Business Journal (@CRBJ) and WCBD (@wcbd and @News2). Also: George Pasley (@gpasley).