What is a hashtag?

If you are one of the 8% of online Americans who used Twitter in 2010, you probably understand hashtags as a convenient way of tagging and organizing ideas simply by sticking a number sign in front of any word. In Twitter, hash tags automatically become links to the entire stream of Tweets that share the same #hashtag.

But for the 92% of online Americans who did not use Twitter last year, including some of my friends and family who asked me “What is a hash tag?” over the holidays, the answer might not be as obvious.

Hashtags emerged because Twitter only allowed posts comprised of 140 characters of free text without any obvious way to organize and categorize the content. The beautiful simplicity of Twitter fueled rapid and viral growth, and the Twitter community looked for ways to organize the flood of information within the 140 character constraint.

Hashtags became a fundamental organizing principle because you only needed to sacrifice one character of your 140 free text field, and putting a # in front of any word gained an easy way to associate information into relevant topical streams.

hashtag example from Catch Notes iPhone

Hashtag example from Catch Notes for iPhone

Catch Notes uses hashtags for the same reason: The notes field starts as a simple free text entry field, without the need to add special titles and categories. The first line of each note automatically is considered the title. Any word with a hash sign in front of it automatically becomes a category and tag for organizing and associating your notes.

I use hashtags in Catch to create interlinked streams of related information about topics ranging from restaurants to recipes, from ideas to expense reports, and just about anything else that I might want to remember and come back to later.

Whenever I find a restaurant I want to go back to, I take a quick geo-tagged photo note using Catch Notes on my iPhone, and I drop a # in front of the word restaurant. Now the note is in my #restaurant stream. Once you have created a few hashtags, the most frequently used hashtags automatically pop up in the hashtag picker when you click the # symbol on the screen.

I also might sprinkle in hashtags like #local or #roadtrip to indicate other associations with a particular restaurant note. Maybe the chef came to the table and told us how he made a dish, and I add a note with the #recipe, automatically linked to all of the other recipes that I have collected or clipped from the web. Or maybe the #restaurant note also contains a business #expense that should land in my expense report, or we talked about an #opportunity and I want to set a reminder to follow up.

Hashtag example from synced notes at Catch.com

Hashtags in Catch appear as links in the sidebar, like categories. They also appear as links within the note itself, as hashtags. We designed Catch for people who don’t necessarily have an elaborately planned filing system, and and who want to keep their organizing principles fluid. The world around us keeps changing with new information, new topics, new ideas, and it is hard to define a fixed filing system.

The idea behind hashtags in Catch is to allow users to think freely and capture their ideas in the moment without fretting about how to organize them or which folders they should go in. Organization emerges with increased use of Catch, and it is easy to change simply by adding a # in the right places.

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