hashtagsHashtags have become an integral aspect of the social Web. Twitter popularized them and turned ‘em into a way to quantify what its users are talking about. Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest all use them to manage the flood of status updates, blog posts, and images shared to their services each day. They provide some semblance of order in a medium otherwise dominated by the chaos inherent to any gathering of a few million people.

The only problem is that hashtags aren’t particularly good at their job. They’re often pounced upon by people too cool to use ‘em for their intended purpose and turned into a comedic crutch instead of an organization tool. They’re regularly “hijacked” by the masses, who can twist a hashtag’s intended usage until it suits their own purposes. And they’re often simply ignored and treated as a vestigial tool used by social media “whatevers” and no-one else. (Unless they’re being used ironically, of course.)

Which might explain why Vine is moving beyond the hashtag with its latest update. The service previously relied on hashtags for everything, from its own categories like #magic or #loop to user-generated categories like #NSFW or #NoseGuitar, which is apparently a thing. Besides the daily Editor’s Picks, which were curated by a living-and-breathing human being, any time you wanted to find a new video or view a certain type of video you had to tap on a hashtag.

That changed yesterday, when Vine announced that it had built new discovery features into its service. Videos are no longer categorized solely by their accompanying hashtag. Instead, they’re automatically categorized based on their popularity or novelty, and users are able to select a specific “Channel” to which the video should belong. Discovering a video on Vine is now less like searching for something shared to Twitter and more like finding something to watch on TV.

Vine isn’t the only company looking to ditch, or at least supplement, the hashtag. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said during the GigaOM conference last year that “Hashtags are a great first stab at [helping users discover photos], but over time we’re going to come up with better ways of letting people curate experiences.” Twitter will begin identifying its users interests based on their browsing history instead of solely basing its assumptions off of the hashtags someone uses or the people they follow. Pinterest started categorizing content based on the website from which it was “pinned” in May.

That doesn’t mean that hashtags are going to go away, however. Marketers have taken to using them as a tool meant to encourage people to “engage with their brands” or “join the conversation” or whatever such nonsense they’re trying to make people do. Hipsters will probably use them ironically as they attempt to be funny until the sun burns out and the only thing left to tweet is #fail. But it seems that hashtags alone are not enough, whether they’re meant to be used to categorize videos and photos, provide a central place for discussing a certain topic, or help services show more relevant advertising.

Ah, wait, I almost forgot: #hashtagproblems

[Image Credit: Mike Cogh]