Trying to follow a conversation on Twitter is often described as drinking from a fire hose: It's more likely to drown you than satisfy your thirst. With only 140 characters per tweet, messages often read like newspaper headlines, and and they come fast and furious - one after the other - all day long.

As of 2012, Twitter's information network is made up of approximately 100 million active users worldwide, which means that for users, becoming overwhelmed is easy.

So, how do you make Twitter a manageable and valuable source of information? The answer is symbolic: The hashtag. Twitter users include the hashtag symbol "#" to categorize tweets by keywords, topic, events, or chats such as #WorldSeries #Egypt or #SXSW.

Twitter hashtags are beneficial because these tagged keywords make it possible for users to streamline relevant conversations occurring on the platform, regardless of whether users follow one another. Hashtags are also beneficial because they are searchable and saveable. For many users, hashtags make it possible to see and join ongoing conversations. (Want to use Twitter to find a job? Read How to Use Twitter to Land a Tech Job.)

The Tweet Goes On

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "as of February 2012, some 15 percent of online adults use Twitter, and 8 percent do so on a typical day."

You may also be surprised to learn that the proportion of online adults who use Twitter on a typical day has doubled since May 2011 and has quadrupled since late 2010, according to Pew. This means that if you aren't already on Twitter, it might not be long before you find a reason to join this unique network.

What sets Twitter apart from other social media platforms is its character limit, which essentially forces users to create ways to interact with one another using symbols and shorthand. One way users have fashioned the network to meet their needs is through the hashtag (#) symbol.

What Is a Twitter Hashtag?

The Twitter Help Center defines the hashtag as a symbol "used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages."

When users include words or phrases in conjunction with a hashtag, they are contributing to a collection of tweets about a particular topic. Users include the "#" symbol before a word or phrase without spaces or punctuation. As an added bonus, tweets containing hashtags are clickable, searchable and saveable.

By now you may be wondering who sent the first Twitter message with a hashtag. Marshall Kirkpatrick of reports that the first hashtag tweet was posted in August 2007. "The #barcamp hashtag was intended to bundle conversation about the global technology un- conference gatherings called Barcamp." The message was sent by Chris Messina, a declared serial social technology innovator and Barcamp co-founder.

Twitter founder Evan Williams reportedly told Messina that hashtags were a form of geek that not everyone would speak. Instead, Williams indicated that Twitter would use machine learning to automatically group tweets together by topic.

But, as you might have guessed, Williams was wrong. The idea of bundling conversations on the same topic across the platform went viral. Right away, users began bundling their own unique conversations with hashtags. You now find hashtags being using by major brands, media outlets, government agencies, nonprofits, celebrities, fictional characters, pets, superheros and everyone in between.

Why Use Hashtags?

Hashtags went viral and their use spread quickly, but that doesn't mean they're about as useful as the latest cat video. In fact, hashtags are exceedingly practical. They streamline specific conversation topics and keywords across Twitter, making it possible to find and interact with other users discussing similar topics, regardless of whether those users follow one another.

For some, the purpose of using a Twitter hashtag is to create conversations in real time on a particular topic. These are called TweetChats, and they're a lot like an open conference call via text message. For example Heather Whailing (@prTini) facilitates well-attended weekly TweetChats using the hashtag #pr20chat, to discuss "public relations 2.0."

Another common purpose of Twitter hashtags is to listen to ongoing conversations about specific topics. Similar to how Google Alerts monitors Google cataloged mentions, hashtags alert users when messages are posted to Twitter including that hashtag. For users, this can be a great way to find new followers and connect with other users who share similar interests.

A third purpose Twitter hashtags serve is to live-tweet from events and presentations. Like the #barcamp hashtag, live Twitter coverage at events is a great strategy for identifying and interacting with others who are passionate about a topic, speaker or event.

Twitter Hashtag Best Practices

In "How to Effectively Cover A Presentation Using Twitter," David Murray, social media director at Moncur Associates, a digital branding, marketing and technology firm, identifies a few best practices when it comes to live tweeting from presentations. These also apply nicely to general Twitter hashtags.

  1. Point to Resources
    One good habit to get into on Twitter is to add value to your tweets. Rather than post tweets with multiple hashtags and very little content, consider incorporating one or two relevant words alongside additional resource links.

    Murray suggests sharing a particular blog post, SlideShare presentation or e-book. Your followers will appreciate knowing where these helpful resources are, and they will remember that you helped them find those resources. Nothing goes over better with information-hungry Twitter users than additional resources, so consider this best practice as you get started.
  2. Appeal to a Specific Group
    A hashtag that's too broad, such as #sports, is less likely to inspire people to respond than a more specific one, like #basketball. It’s a good idea to relate your tag to something you know people are passionate about, says Jeanine Dellinger, in "How to Choose the Best Twitter Hashtag."

    If no one reads and responds to your hashtag messages are you really contributing to the conversation? Probably not. Finding and using hashtags that are meaningful to a particular group means should create a response - and increased opportunities to connect with others.
  3. Use Multiple Social Media Channels
    Generating conversation around a hashtag and interacting with others across the world on common topics is one of the best things about Twitter, but getting the conversation going can be a little challenging. One way to accomplish this goal is by cross-promotion. By cross-promoting your hashtag you can help drive more awareness, and therefore more participation.

    Because the Twitter hashtag has been around for quite a while, many Facebook fans, blog followers and LinkedIn users are familiar with the symbol, so don’t be afraid to share the hashtag with your users on other social media networks and encourage them to join the conversation.
If you're not using Twitter hashtags, you may not be getting the most out of Twitter. After all, social media is all about being social, which makes connecting and communicating with the right people essential. Hashtags can help you do that. (Find out more about how Twitter is being used in For Customer Service, Please Click "Tweet.")