Mike Isaac

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Facebook to Introduce Hashtags — And That’s a Double-Edged Sword for Twitter

Facebook has always wanted to edge in on Twitter’s Interest Graph.

The idea is, it’s a boon for ad dollars, as Twitter’s real-time stream taps into the immediate sentiment of the crowd. Facebook’s Friend Graph, while powerful, isn’t designed for immediacy.

At least, not yet. As was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, and as I’ve verified through sources of my own, Facebook plans to launch its own Linkify’d version of the hashtag, allowing users to connect common themes and trending topics around the social network by adding the simple hashtag symbol to a status update. Clicking through sends a reader down a rabbit hole of information, all connected to the hashtag being followed.

“We don’t comment on rumors and speculation,” Facebook told AllThingsD.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook already hinted at something like this at its News Feed redesign event last week. Breaking up the entire feed into separate verticals — like photos, music, and the entire sharing stream instead of only some shares — was the most Twitter-y thing Facebook has done yet. I’m surprised they didn’t introduce the linked hashtags throughout the service at the News Feed event.

But drilling down on the hashtag specifically is a direct affront to Twitter, potentially dipping into Twitter’s valuable ad dollar territory.

Look at it this way: Imagine the power, Twitter would say, of an advertiser sticking an ad in a user’s face at the exact time they want to see it. If a user follows a hashtag about, say, #desserts, a company like Hostess could sell ads against anyone who searches that hashtag, sticking a promoted tweet for their delightful pink Sno-Balls in front of everyone following the hashtag. It’s a practice that’s slowly catching on for the advertisers who can understand it (but not every brand is totally up to speed on how to best advertise on Twitter).

Facebook, on the other hand, can’t tap into that trending sentiment quite as effectively. While the company does attempt to place relevant ads in the News Feed and lower-right-rail to reach its users, it would do better to let people dig deeper into trends across categories. So blatantly ripping off Twitter makes some sense here.

And Facebook has hinted that this could be a reality for the site. In January, the company debuted Graph Search, the nascent way of digging deep into Facebook by making connections through the Friend Graph. Also, Instagram has used hashtags for some time, though that seems to have grown out of the language of Twitter.

Essentially, edging in on Twitter’s advertising territory by offering a better way to connect ads to users could spell trouble for Twitter.

But there’s a glass-half-full way of looking at this.

One of Twitter’s largest issues has been its difficulty translating just how normal people are supposed to use the hashtag in the first place. When on-boarding new users, they’re faced with a litany of “at symbols” and hashtags, a language of Twitter’s own that isn’t immediately clear. Not to mention the difficulty of letting users know how to use hashtags effectively in search and discovery; right now, Twitter’s search and discovery tab has improved, but it has long been terrible.

So Facebook’s widespread adoption of this language could actually bring the lexicon to the masses, essentially introducing a billion newbies to a gnarly language — one which Twitter is still trying to figure out how to introduce to users.

Remember, Twitter: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just hope that this rip-off is to your advantage.

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