Mike Isaac

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Aiming for the Real-Time Interest Graph, Facebook to Introduce Hashtags

fbhash380Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. And Twitter should be very flattered right now.

As we reported in March, Facebook plans to introduce the hashtag symbol to its network, effectively stepping in on territory long occupied by Twitter, the company that made the simple symbol a major part of online social communications.

Over the past seven years, the hashtag has slowly but surely invaded technological parlance. It’s a way of organizing themes, topics or thoughts into categories, a label that anyone can apply to their social sharing. To be sure, a number of social services use the symbol today — from Tumblr and Pinterest to Google’s recent impressive incorporation of hashtags in Google+ — but Twitter is largely credited with the rise of the hashtag.

And in a time where content spreads virally in real time — think about the spread of information in the “Boston bombing” — ideas like the hashtag are a way for a user to navigate the ceaseless flood of status updates and information and drill down on a particular topic.

“Whether it’s talking about a favorite television show, cheering on a hometown sports team or engaging with friends during a breaking news event, people on Facebook connect with their friends about what’s taking place all over the world,” Facebook product manager Greg Lindley said in a blog post on Wednesday.

“To date, there has not been a simple way to see the larger view of what’s happening or what people are talking about. To bring these conversations more to the forefront, we will be rolling out a series of features that surface some of the interesting discussions people are having about public events, people, and topics. As a first step, we are beginning to roll out hashtags on Facebook.”

So, in a sense, it’s Facebook’s tacit admission that, yes, Twitter has tapped into a smart way of connecting with the masses in a fairly simple fashion.

Consider this, too: Lindley said that Facebook has anywhere between 88 million to 100 million Americans actively using Facebook during prime-time television hours, “roughly a Super Bowl-sized audience every single night.”

This is exactly the audience Twitter’s ad guys are going after with Twitter’s “second screen” pitch. Note that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s constant argument is that while you sit down in front of the television to watch the big game, the Oscars or whatever, Twitter is the place to go for real-time conversation. It’s also the perfect moment, Twitter would argue, to serve up a relevant ad related to the hashtag you’re tweeting about.

Twitter, by the way, declined to comment.

Facebook would love to cash in on those potential ad dollars but, unless you’re considering Instagram — which is often used by people during live events — Facebook isn’t popularly known as the go-to place for real-time conversation in the way that Twitter is. Now, obviously, Facebook wants to be that place.

But that’s a tough move for Facebook because of the very nature of its network. This is a company that made its first inroads into social with a more private social network pitch, in contrast to Twitter’s entirely public realm. To be able to navigate subject matter by hashtag inside of Facebook is something of a shift.

Facebook, however, has been all about shifts over the past year. It made serious privacy-settings changes at the end of 2012, taking a more public stance on user profiles and making them all searchable. Publicness is something Facebook wants to slowly, carefully push its users toward (whether they want it or not).

It’s somewhat funny, too, considering how often Costolo admits that Twitter has a language and complication problem; as popular as hashtags have become for the service, they’ve also made Twitter somewhat inscrutable to the non-tech-savvy, the newcomers to the service who Twitter so desperately wants to court. It’ll be interesting to see if Facebook will have these same struggles.

But, on that note, it could end up being a helpful thing for Twitter, in that the increased prevalence of the hashtag on Facebook could make it more common, and thereby easier to understand for people in general.

Facebook’s Lindley said there are more types of discovery and surfacing tools to come in the future. @Facebook, anyone?

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus