The announcement by social media superpower Facebook about a significant enhancement in its interface — the hashtag feature – may appear quite belated to social media enthusiasts.

The ability to hashtag on Twitter, Facebook’s archrival in the space, is the single most important feature that makes it a powerful social interaction tool.

But will providing support for the hashtag give Facebook, which has 1.2 billion users with posts ranging from verbose statuses to feed from games and activities, enable it to make the same impact that Twitter, the 140-character microblogging tool, has?

In a promotional tweet earlier this week, chip manufacturer Intel said that “400 million tweets are sent every day” on Twitter.

Twitter’s USP

The sheer brilliance of Twitter is its ability to aggregate tweets into topical categories. Twitter also tosses up the most discussed topics as ‘trending topics’. This helps users discover the most popular discussions. Significantly, Facebook lacked this till recently.

The # symbol when used on compatible platforms, such as social networks, is treated as a metadata tag. Metadata is the data for machines to understand and to keep a log. When users use a hashtag, they are voluntarily telling the machines to keep track of the keywords associated with the hashtag. When many users prefix hashtags for a specific topic, Twitter shows it as ‘trending topics’. This metadata is intended to sort traffic by indexing. By giving trends from different geographic locations, users can see what is making news, and hence have an insight into what is trending on the network on an hourly basis.

What was trending

For instance, some time ago, #Rs 1.82 was trending in India and in Bangalore feeds, suggesting that people were tweeting about the proposed petrol price hike, whereas globally #Mandela was the leading topic. Even when users are not aware of these topics, because it shows up on ‘trending topics’, the chances of a more diverse participation is made possible. This feature was missing on Facebook. There is no scope, as yet, for users to discover topics that are trending.

When Edward Snowden left Hong Kong, #Snowden and #Hong Kong were trending topics on Twitter, whereas there was no clue of this on Facebook. Users cannot discover a new feed, but only speculatively hashtag a keyword and run a check on others who might have said something along the same lines. The first social network to introduce hashtags was the open social network, Diaspora, and more recently, Google Plus; both offer users the option to follow hashtags, and also show trends as on Twitter.

Privacy settings

Facebook has another problem. Even if it introduced ‘trending topics’, the chances of exploring feeds from other users will be hindered by its privacy settings. On Twitter, by agreement, all tweets (unless an account is protected) are visible to anyone on the web. Facebook, on the other hand, has multiple levels of privacy circles. When users do not wish to make their posts accessible to the wider audience, hashtags will result in the feed remaining within a user’s friends’ circle. This makes the ability to hashtag redundant, if users cannot see what rest of the world is talking about.