Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Apostle #Paul and Hashtags

For the past couple of weeks, our Sunday school class has been looking at some of the Apostle Paul’s letters. Now, you may be wondering how Paul’s letters relate to hashtags. Recently, I’ve been seeing hashtags…I mean a lot of hashtags. I’ve been seeing posts with three or four or more hashtags. I see posts where half the post is taken up with hashtags. What do I do? I ignore the post and keep on scrolling. I suspect most other people do as well. We need to think about hashtag strategy, and I think Paul’s epistles can help us with that.

Paul’s Form

Paul followed a standard form, when he wrote his epistles. This may have been how he was taught to write in school, but it is worth considering. First, he tells the reader who he is. In your Bible you’ll see that all of Paul’s letters begin with the same word. Can you guess what it is? Absolutely right. “Paul” is the first word of every letter. (Hebrews would be an exception, if it is written by Paul.)

Next, Paul gives a brief introduction to himself and tells who writing the letter with him. In some cases, such as in Colossians, Paul simply says “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God.” But in other places he gives a longer statement. In 2 Timothy, Paul says, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus.” That statement about “the promise of life” is quite significant when you consider that Paul was writing this letter in preparation for his own death.

Then, Paul includes a statement about who he is writing to. This isn’t just the names, so that people know the letter is addressed to them. 2 Timothy 1:2 says, “To Timothy, dearly beloved son.” This is more of a reminder of how important these people are to Paul.

Paul then writes a prayer of thanksgiving, goes into the body of the letter, and he concludes with mentioning key people who he knows are in the same area as the person receiving the letter. Given that Paul’s letters are much too long for social media posts, you’re probably still wondering what his letters have to do with hashtags.

A Hashtag Strategy

If we simplify Paul’s form, we see that he makes sure the reader knows:

  1. who is writing
  2. why they should listen
  3. who he is writing to
  4. what he is writing about
Number one, do people know who is writing? And even if they don’t, is a hashtag the best way to tell them? Most of the time in social media, we don’t need to tell people who is writing, because our name appears at the top of the post. Things are different if we are posting to an organization’s page. The organization’s name is on the post, so we don’t need a hashtag for that. If someone uses personal pronouns like “I” or “we” in the post, it is helpful to have the person’s name at the end of the post, so people know who “I” is, but a hashtag won’t tell you that.

Number two, do people know why they should listen? Even if they don’t, hashtags won’t help. Imagine a social media post that includes the hashtag #apostle. Do you think people are going to sit up and listen because of that? What if I included the hashtag #programmingexpert on my posts? Don’t you think people might wonder what I mean by that? But on the other hand, if I began with, “Timothy, who majored in Computer Science/Mathematics and who has a Masters in Computer Science and who has nearly twenty years of experience programming computers, and who has developed multiple websites and who has written books on programming computers,” that would mean something. But the hashtag would be meaningless, because even a college student with a couple of years of programming classes is a #programmingexpert, when compared to the average computer user. Your resume belongs on your profile page, not as a hashtag on your posts.

Number three, do people know you are talking to them? One of the problems with social media is that we tend to write about people, not to people. Suppose I write the post, “Coffee…down the hatch. Water bottles…filled. Tires…110psi. Let’s get this show on the road.” If you’ve been reading my posts, you know that I’m about to hop on a bicycle and go road cycling, but who am I talking to? If I’m just putting it out there for anyone who happens to read it, you’ll probably think “That’s nice. Maybe I should ride a bicycle sometime.” You might even click the like button. But here’s where a hashtag can be useful. Suppose I include the hashtag #SSMCycling. (You don’t have to know what that means.) Suppose some friends and I decided that we would call ourselves the “SSM Cycling Club” and we would use that hashtag on our posts when we are talking to each other. That post might well be followed by a post from another one of your friends, “I’m fixing a flat tire. Don’t leave without me. #SSMCycling” There may be only four people who pay any attention to that hashtag, but it is effective because it tells those four people that someone is talking to them.

But some hashtags intended to identify a group to talk to are just wishful thinking. Suppose there is a business called “Stacy’s Half Pies.” Stacy writes posts that includes the hashtag, #halfpielovers. Unless Stacy has a supportive customer base, just putting #halfpielovers on her posts won’t help her find true half pie lovers. She would be better off using the same hashtag that one of her competitors is using effectively, or not cluttering the post with hashtags at all.

Number four, do people know what you are talking about? Paul wasn’t limited to one paragraph, so he had plenty of room to explain what he was talking about. This isn’t always true for us, and hashtags can help. One of my favorite hashtags is #BAAW. That stands for Bike Against A Wall. Doing an image search for images with the #BAAW hashtag will give you some very beautiful pictures of bicycles supported by walls, or rocks, or sticks in interesting locations. I don’t know who took these pictures. I don’t know why each person felt the desire to post a picture. What I know is that we share a common interest.

It’s Personal, But To Whom?

While we need to communicate the four things that Paul communicated, we need to limit our hashtag use. We need to make it personal, but not by talking about ourselves. Instead, focus on the needs of the reader. No one wants to see more than one or two hashtags on a post, so limit their use to who the targeted reader is and a topic that your reader wants to read about. Don’t just make up a hashtag unless you know you can get a following for that hashtag. Often, what we want to do is to use and @tag, rather than a hashtag. If people want to hear from you, specifically, they’ll sign up. They follow hashtags when they want to hear from several different people or groups who are part of a bigger organization or subject matter. There’s a reason why businesses with successful Facebook strategies don’t include self-referential hashtags in their posts. They add no value to the reader.

Where hashtags become important is when you want to communicate your message to people who aren’t following you. These people are identified by a hashtag that they follow. You might also use a hashtag when you want people to identify posts that they want you to see. You wouldn’t put these hashtags on your own posts, but you would inform people that you will be reading the posts that include the hashtag, thus providing a means of people communicating with you about specific topics.