SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook is preparing to roll out hashtags on the giant social network, opening up another front in its intensifying battle with Twitter for people's attention and advertising dollars.
Facebook would be following the example of Twitter, which made the hashtag famous, and Instagram, which already uses hashtags. The idea would be to add a hashtag that is also a link to connect themes and topics on Facebook.
Facebook already lets users tag people, pages and location. Letting users tag their posts with hashtags would make it easier for that content to be indexed by Facebook’s new search product, Graph Search.
Facebook isn't talking about it -- with or without hashtags. "We do not comment on rumor or speculation," the company said in an emailed statement.
There are loads of good reasons that Facebook would want hashtags. It has always wanted to capture (and target ads to) what people are really interested in (something Twitter has done very well). Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (As an aside, the San Francisco company celebrates its birthday next week and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is making an appearance on "60 Minutes" on Sunday.)
Hashtags are words preceded by the # (pound) symbol to pool all the messages around a single topic or news event. Open-source advocate Chris Messina was the one who proposed using hashtags to index topics on Twitter, like tags on blogs. One of the first high-profile examples was San Diego resident Nate Ritter, who used #sandiegofire on tweets about the October 2007 wildfires.
No sooner did a report surface that Facebook is working to bring the hashtag to its service than a loud debate broke out on Twitter. To #hashtag or not to #hashtag, that was the question.
The use of hashtags has become quite common on Twitter and, in some quarters, reviled. The main knock on hashtags: They are confusing and annoying to new users. And, as Owen Thomas points out, there was actually a study that showed that using them lowers your follower count.
"They seem popular on Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing service. But hashtags existed on Instagram from its earliest days, making it easy to find photos about a topic or in a certain style," Thomas wrote. "It's a far different prospect to introduce the confusing hashtag metaphor to mainstream Facebook users, where a billion people have managed to get by just fine without them."