What’s in a #hashtag? That which we call a #rose by any other name would smell as sweet…
Hashtags are one of the most confusing aspects of social media to explain to non-internet addicts. They’re one of those things that once you notice them, you start seeing the little rascals popping up everywhere: on billboards, on your TV screen while your favorite show is playing (I’m looking at you, ABC Family), or littered in your aesthetically-conscious friend’s Instagram feed.
So what do hashtags actually do? What’s their point? Why do you see them on our title walls when you walk into an exhibition at the Blanton?
Hashtags first appeared in the late 80s in online internet chat rooms, but their widespread use is largely thanks to Twitter. Originally created as a way to group together posts about the same topic, users started putting the # sign in front of words or phrases to turn them into clickable links that made finding information easier. Want to know what’s going on in Austin, Texas? Search the #Austin hashtag. Looking for fashion bloggers on Instagram? Search—appropriately—#fashionblogger. Over time, hashtags gained popularity on Twitter as a way to share news and breaking updates; for example, news stations, weathermen, and reporters shared news about the flooding in Austin using #ATXfloods. Hashtags are also used more colloquially to provide context or express emotions that wouldn’t be readily apparent. For example:
Hey #MuseumStairs: we raise you one atrium captured perfectly by @chriscodyyy→ http://t.co/FPrVEA7UsS #micdrop pic.twitter.com/Do2eGduNx3
— Blanton Museum (@blantonmuseum) April 22, 2015
If you’ve been a longtime visitor to the Blanton—or just oddly interested in the design of our title walls—then you might have noticed that about a year ago, we started including hashtags on the entrance walls to our exhibitions. A little backstory: after I began working at the Blanton and ramping up our social media profiles, I noticed that visitors who posted about our shows would often make up their own hashtags to include in posts. For example, we had people tagging, #blantonmuseumofart, #blanton, #bma #blantonmuseumaustin, or a variety of other combinations to show that they had been at the museum. This made it hard for me to monitor what people were posting about us since there was no consistency. Now we have a dedicated hashtag (#blantonmuseum) that I include on all of our Instagram posts so visitors know which hashtag to use. Although people still like to come up with creative ways to tag us, consistent promotion and use of the “official” hashtag has led to wide adoption by most social-media savvy people who visit the museum.
So, back to the title walls of exhibitions: why don’t they have our general #blantonmuseum hashtag on them? Wouldn’t that be better for consistency, you ask? I will concede that yes, it would, but I’m more interested in how people react to a specific show, since we have a variety of different exhibitions that rotate throughout the seasons, while the art on view from our collection doesn’t change as often. That means that for every show, I work with other members on the PR & Marketing team to develop an exhibition-specific hashtag that will appear on the title wall, the corresponding brochures, and any web or print ads about the show (space permitting).
While you think it’d be easy to come up with a hashtag for each show, this process is often, for lack of a better word, #rough.
Ideally, I like to have a hashtag that is pulled from the title of the show, as we did for #BrainTrash, our 2014 exhibition on artist James Drake. Having the hashtag overlap with the title of the show means that if people miss seeing the hashtag on the exhibition wall, there’s a solid chance that they’ll include the correct one anyway—we want to make it as easy as possible for people to use the right hashtag. The more the hashtag deviates from the title of the exhibition, the less intuitive it is for people to use or guess. This means that the Blanton’s social media channels need to be even more attentive to sharing and promoting the hashtag we want people to adopt.
So, step 1 in hashtag design for exhibitions: try to make it relate as closely as possible to the title of the show. Step 2 is where things get more challenging: the hashtag needs to be short, ideally 12 characters or under. On platforms like Twitter, where the character count in each post is restricted, having a short hashtag means users are able to fit more of the important stuff (like what they thought about the show!) in the body of their tweet.
In the case of Impressionism and the Caribbean, where all the words in the title are long, #FranciscoOllerAndHisTransatlanticWorld would take up half the space needed to share a reaction to the show. So, we needed to find a way to cut down the title to a more manageable hashtag. #FranciscoOller wouldn’t work, because when you read it as the all lowercase #franciscooller, a strange man by the name of Francis Cooller appears. #ImpressionismCaribbean wouldn’t work, because honestly, who can successfully spell either of those without spell check? Not me.
After a lot of deliberation, we finally settled on #OllerATX. This hashtag met all our criteria in that it was short and easy to spell. We also thought it was important to include some part of Oller’s name in the hashtag, since the show focuses on his life and work. We also wanted to highlight that this presentation of the show was unique to Austin and the state of Texas, since the exhibition includes a selection of works from artists using Impressionism to depict the Gulf Coast. Thus….#OllerATX was born! Because it’s not an intuitive hashtag, the Blanton’s social media channels have been using it on every tweet, Instagram, or Facebook post relating to the exhibition. Blanton staff, like the show’s managing curator Beth Shook, also help put the word out that this is the hashtag we want visitors to use.
So, the next time you’re walking into the galleries, stop for a moment and study the title wall. Find the exhibition hashtag, and for the love of all things holy, please use the one we’ve listed instead of making up your own! And remember: every time a visitor uses the correct hashtag for a show, a social media manager gets her #wings.
Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.