Understanding and using both “tags” (metadata) and hashtags to find, organize, and archive information for later retrieval are essential literacy skills today. These concepts may be poorly understood by many teachers and students, however, and underutilized in school-required research assignments. In this post, I’ll explore both the concepts of tags and hashtags and the skills for using them effectively, and provide examples and suggestions for how we can model and encourage their use in our classrooms. This is the first post in a series I’m tagging, #MediaLiteracy101.

As John Green noted in his excellent 2019 “Crash Course” video for MediaWise, WikiPedia (unfortunately) still gets a bad rap among many educators. WikiPedia can be an outstanding “launchpad” for investigations into many different topics, and media literacy concepts and skills like “tags” (metadata) and hashtags are cases in point.

tag is a keyword or term assigned to a piece of information

Tag (metadata). (2022). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tag_(metadata)&oldid=1065881703

If you started using the interactive web (web 2.0) in the mid-2000s, you may remember “social bookmarking” websites like del.icio.us and Diigo. Diigo is still online and used by millions of folks. Both these websites supported/support the creation of web-based (“saved in the cloud”) bookmarks for Internet World-Wide Web resources / addresses, which are shared publicly by default. Instead of putting each bookmark into a single, virtual “folder” for categorization, social bookmarks allow users to add an unlimited number of “tags” which aids in both personal organization as well as crowd-sourced discovery. By using a common tag, any group of people can collaborate in simple but powerful ways, joining forces to find and share resources. I have not used Diigo since 2015, but my own bookmarks (which included my imported, previous bookmarks from Delicious.com) remain online at www.diigo.com/profile/wfryer. I started a chapter on “social bookmarking” for a book project called “Powerful Ingredients for Blended Learning” (with Karen Montgomery) which I never finished, but is still online. While I don’t actively use social bookmarks anymore, I definitely use tagging and find it to be one of the most helpful ways I save and share Internet resources.

With iOS15, Apple started to support the uses of tags in its “Notes app” which is not only free on iPhones / iPads but also runs (and syncs via iCloud) on MacOS computers. (See the Apple Support article, “Use Tags and Smart Folders in Notes on your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch” for details.) In the mid to late 2000s I was an avid Evernote user, but over time I migrated more to personal notetaking on Google Docs. Now in addition to collaborative / shared notes created in Google Docs, I am using the iOS / MacOS Notes app on a daily basis to dictate and proofread social media posts, and to keep personal notes of things I want to remember (like “blog posts I need to write.”) I’ve started to use tags in my notes too, as I way to organize and aggregate them in very powerful but simple ways.

hashtag is a metadata tag that is prefaced by the pound sign or hash symbol# (not to be confused with the pound currency sign). 

Hashtag. (2022). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hashtag&oldid=1071372427

Twitter and Instagram are the two social media platforms I use on a daily basis now with hashtags. I use hashtags for multiple purposes, including:

  1. Helping myself find websites, articles and posts later on a given topic (Example: I tag posts with #edtechSR which I want to discuss on the next Wednesday night episode of “The EdTech Situation Room” podcast)
  2. Sharing resources with a specific web community (Example: #digiURI is the Summer Institute for Digital Literacy at the University of Rhode Island, and the hashtag we use as alumns and faculty to share resources year-round)
  3. Increasing the chances others with shared interests will find my posts and channel, and like them / follow me (Example: I use the hashtags #BackyardBBQ and #BBQlife often on Instagram when I post barbecue food photos on my @CookWithWes channel)

“See my September 2020 post, “Twitter Threads as Bear Traps,” for more about how hashtags as well Twitter threads can be used to simultaneously archive useful ideas at an event like an educational conference, and also share those ideas for further amplification with a group and the general public.

I now regularly use Twitter and Twitter hashtags to save and share my own research about a variety of topics. The website service IFTTT is invaluable to me in this work, and specifically IFTTT recipes (like this one) which append the text and link from a Tweet to a Google Document, when I tweet with specific hashtags. I use this “hashtag-powered workflow” to collect and archive the links I share each week on “The EdTech Situation Room” podcast (@edtechSR) as well as the “Conspiracies and Culture Wars” media literacy project I’m continuing to develop.

Hashtags on social media are powerful, but they are also open for anyone to use and therefore subject to abuse and potentially inappropriate content that is “NSFC” (not safe for the classroom.) Educational conference hashtags are a case in point. I haven’t seen much misuse of Twitter hashtags specifically at events, but the potential is always there. Especially if a hashtag starts to “trend” on Twitter, unscrupulous Internet trolls are likely to try and and share inflammatory content with it. Fortunately Twitter’s algorithm can “hide potentially sensitive content” if you’ve configured your own account settings to do so, but this feature is far from foolproof. I recommending being wary of showing a live-feed of a Twitter hashtag at a conference event, for example, unless using a solution which supports moderation. (LiveTweetApp, EverWall, Onstipe, and Taggbox are all commercial solutions offering this feature.) If your event is small, hashtag trolls and Twitter may not appear. For national events like ISTE, they’re basically inevitable because of the sheer volume of tweets the event hashtag will invite.

Besides personally modeling the use of tags and hashtags in the ways I’ve already identified in this post, how can we encourage our students to appropriately use them in the classroom and for assignments / projects? If your students have iPhones, you might start with the use of hashtags in the iOS Notes app. Everyone has a need to put ideas when they occur to us into a “trusted system for future retrieval,” and although it’s simple and free, iOS notes can serve this purpose. This can also be used on iPads or laptops, if those are the computing devices your students are using.

If your students use Chromebooks and/or you’re in a “Google Workspace for Education” (formerly GAFE or Google Apps for Education” school setting, give the free Google Chrome extension “Tag-A-Doc” a try. It allows users to add a variety of tags to different documents in Google Drive, and then use the tags as FILTERS to view customized search results.

Learning to “Filter the ExoFlood” (which actually should be spelled “exaflood”) is another vital media literacy skill, and might be another post in this #MediaLiteracy101 series.

How are you using tags and hashtags to support your own learning, and to facilitate both student learning and the acquisition of media literacy skills? I’d love to hear from you and continue this exploration of metatags and literacy. Please add a comment on this post, and/or reach out on Twitter.

Happy tagging!

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