In a recent post on the eFoundation’s blog Andy Powell wrote about “Flocking behaviour – why Twitter is for starlings, not buzzards“. Based on the statistics I had provided for use of  Twitter at the recent ALT C 2009 conference Andy picked up on the use of two tags (#altc2009 and #altc09) and pointed out that “if you don’t tweet using the generally agreed tag you are effectively invisible to much of the conference audience“.

I agree – so there’s probably a need to agree on  hashtagging strategies for events, which I’ll explore in this post. And I’ll use this as an opportunity to consider what hashtag UKOLN should be using for next year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2010).

Issues To Consider

What are the issues to consider when selecting a hashtag for use at an event?

Being brief
The initial requirement is that as tweets are limited to 140 characters,  hashtags should be brief in order to maximise the amount of content that can be containing in a tweet about an event.
Avoiding problems with non-alpha-numeric characters
It may be felt desirable to avoid use of certain non-alphanumeric characters which may cause problems in some Twitter clients.  For example, the hashtag #clip2.0 was initially suggested for an event on the relevance of Web 2.0 technologies for the CILIP organisation and CILIP members. However Twitter clients seem to truncate hashtags containing a full stop, so the hashtag #cilip2 was used. Similar problems have been observed with use of a dash (-) as illustrated in the display of a tweet in the TweetDeck client. In addition there was a complaint that use of an underscore (_) in the #cilip_lams event caused usability problems, especially on mobile devices. The advice would seem to be stick with alphanumeric characters in hashtags.
Avoid numbers at the start of hashtags
Hashtags which begin with a number (e.g. #2009foo ) are believed to cause hyperlinking problems in some clients.
Should you be consistent with other tagging services?
Although those who make intensive use of Twitter may feel that the first two points are all that need to be considered when formulating a hashtag for an event, there may be an argument for being consistent with recommendations for tags using in other environments such as other Flickr, YouTube, etc. These services do not suffer for the length constraints imposed by Twitter and so can provide more flexibility. There may be an argument for using a Twitter-safe hashtag in these other services, but what if these other services are the more widely-used services (e.g. events with an established use of Flickr)?
Should the year be included?
Many of the events I’ve attended or followed on Twitter have included the year in the hashtag (e.g. #iwmw2009, #altc2009 and #solo09) but some have not (#alpsp and #cilip_lams). Does the year have to be included, especially as the tweets will be readily accessible via the Twitter search APIs for only a short period?  But might a decision to save space by omitting the year cause problems if the Twitter API changes or other tools are used? And might this cause additional confusions with tags for which date encoding may be useful.
One hashtag or several?
If there are multiple events associated with a main event (e.g. pre-conference workshops or fringe events) you will need to consider whether to recommend use of the main event hashtag for these peripheral events or to suggest an alternative hashtag.
Branding issues
There may be pressure to ensure that an event hasthtag provides the correct branding for the organising bodies. The hashtag for the CILIP’s Umbrella 2009 conference, for example, was #cilipumbrella.
Multi-lingual issues
Welsh institutions  may need to consider use of bilingual hashtags. Note, for example, that for the CILIP Wales 2009 conference the conference hashtag was cilip-cymru09. I should add, however, that I haven’t any experience of the implications of use of non Latin characters (ironically, as Im (sic) typing this sentence on a Croatian keyboard and cant find the single quote character!)
Being memorable
Perhaps because I’m getting older I am finding it difficult to remember random strings of characters – so I wouldn’t appreciate a tag such as #xuj740n9 (having to re-authenticate a username and password with a similar pattern can also be irritating). I found the hashtags used for the recent Oxford Social Media Conference (#oxsmc09) and Science Online London (#solo09) events easy to remember  as the conference names themselves were memorable.
Being different
Having an event hashtag which could clashes with other hashtags is likely to lead to confusion.
Avoiding ambiguities in the characters
Many years ago I was an information officer and I was very aware of the need to avoid confusions between characters such as 1 and i and o and 0 (in some fonts these many be indistinguishable). Note that this may be very relevant for events held next year. The (fictitious) Input Output’s annual conference hashtag #io10 could be particularly confusing depending on the font used on your computer.
Being timely and promoting the hashtag effectively
As mentioned recently, it is important to finalise a hashtag in advance of the event and to ensure that participants and other interested parties are aware of the official hashtag for the event. In many cases participants are likely to tweet about an event prior to the event, perhaps when a call for paper has been published e.g. “Looking for partners to write a proposal for #altc2010 with“.
Obtaining buy-in from users of the tag
As it is not possible to mandate use of an official event hashtag you should seek to ensure that users of the tag will be inclined to use the hashtag. If the hashtag is too long the users may choose to use a shorter one.
Explaining the tag
As well as promoting the hashtag to the event participants you should also try to ensure that other interested parties, who perhaps might notice a stream of tweets with the tag, can easily discover more about the associated event.  One way of doing this might be to ensure that a Web page containing details of the hashtag and the event is published early so that it may be indexed by Google. In addition it may be useful to describe the event in Twitter aggregation services such as WThashtag (e.g. see the description for the IWMW 2009 event).

#iwmw2010, #iwmw10, #iwmw – or something else?

This post has described some of the issues which should be considered when choosing an event hashtag. But to put such discussions into context, I’d like to consider the hashtag UKOLN should be using for next year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2010) – the fourteenth in this series of annual events for members of institutional Web management teams.

I’ve recently attended four events which had a Twitter hashtag, each of which took a different approach: #altc2009, #techshare09, #alpsp and #cilip_lams.

As there aren’t pressures to brand our host institution, UKOLN, there’s no need for a ‘#ukoln_iwmw” style tag. The options, and arguments for and against, are therefore:

For:  Consistency with previous years and consistency with tags used in Flickr, YouTube, etc. Also consistency with URL used on UKOLN Web site.
Against: Uses 9 characters – this could be shorter.

For: Saves two characters over #iwmw2010.
Against: Loses consistency with previous years and with other tag services. Possible confusion over the characters (could it be confused with #iwmwi0?)

For: Saves four characters over #iwmw2010. No confusion with the ’10’ characters.
Against: Loses consistency with previous years and with other tag services. Loss of the date may cause problems if data is to be used in content of other years (but not necessarily so as the tweets do have a machine-readable date)

What do you think we should go for? And are there other issues one should consider when choosing a hashtag for an event which I haven’t mentioned?