Facebook has always been something of a semi-private playground – a place for you and a few hundred of your closest friends to flirt or swap pictures of parties and babies. But if its recent introduction of hashtags indicates anything, it's that Facebook now wants to become the world's virtual town square – and that the privacy users value may very well be getting in the way.
Hashtags are essentially filters for social media. They started out life on Twitter when users borrowed the idea of tags from blogs and started appending words to tweets preceded by the hash sign. Canadian politics buffs could add #canpoli to their messages, while reality TV lovers might addend #americanidol to theirs – the point being that, even in the confines of a 140-character message, people reading could easily recognize what was being discussed.
What made hashtags truly interesting, though, was when they got built into the actual backbone of social media and became a way of aggregating all the posts about that topic. Today, clicking on a hashtag on Twitter, Pinterest or any other number of services sifts through the network to bring you just those posts with that specific tag. It has the effect of producing a running a stream on the topic of your choosing, and it works especially well during popular events. Clicking on something like #GoT for Game of Thrones gives you a glimpse of what (a slice) of the whole world is saying about the latest shocking revelation in the TV show. It's literally a flood of reaction from all over the globe.
It's precisely that sense of "a snapshot of what the world is thinking" that Facebook is after. Currently, if you want to talk about what's happening right at this moment, you go to Twitter or Instagram. For Facebook, that represents an enormous lost opportunity, because its business model relies on using people's interests to serve them ads related to those pursuits; if you're off talking about the Stanley Cup on Twitter, that's money lost for Facebook. Hashtags mark another step in the company's battle to become the default for everything Internet.
What complicates matters for Facebook is the sticky issue of privacy. Unlike Twitter, in which tweets are public by default, Facebook profiles are often private, which means that hashtags will be too. Though Facebook hardly has the best record when it comes default privacy settings, it does mean that the ideal of seeing "what the world is talking about" will initially be muted at first, hampered by the fact that many hashtagged posts will be hidden from others searching for the very same topics.
That tension between privacy and aggregation, a personal social media and a public one, reflects a basic contradiction inherent to Facebook. While privacy concerns become ever more important for consumers, the more stuff on our profiles we make public and accessible, the easier it is for the company to adhere to its singular desire: to make money.
That said, the correct way to think about any move made by a large Internet company is to consider what it means for the business and what it means for users as two sets of competing desires. For those on the service, hashtags are likely going to be a somewhat useful way to find others talking about the same subjects, and will probably be most helpful to the many for whom social media starts and ends with Facebook. For the company, however, it represents a wish to become the home of online discussion. Unfortunately for users, though, what that may also mean is that the Zuckerberg-run company may have reached an impasse when it comes to privacy–and is starting to realize that the walled garden that so many value is the very thing getting in the way of that ever-important bottom line.