Writing accessible hashtags

Write accessible hashtags by camel casing them. Because ThisReadsBetter thanthisdoes.

You wouldn’t like it if I removed all the spaces from my sentences, andjustwrotelikethis, but if you write hashtags without camel casing them, that is exactly how you are writing. I want to talk about why this is a problem and advocate that we all share a responsibility to fix this.

I will also explain what camel casing is, hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be well equipped to understand the issues and write better copy!

If you don’t have time to read the entire article and have an innate trust of my reasoning (thank you!) then my advice is;

Anytime you write a hashtag with more than one word, use uppercase letters to camel case them #SoWriteLikeThis, #notlikethis.

What is camel case?

Before we move onto talking about hashtags, lets get a definition out of the way, I’ve talked about camel casing, but what is that?

Camel case is the term for using an uppercase letter as the first letter when joining different words together. It is called “camel” case because the upper case letters look like humps.

From Wikipedia;

Camel case […] is the practice of writing phrases without spaces or punctuation and with capitalized words. The format indicates the first word starting with either case, then the following words having an initial uppercase letter. Common examples include YouTube, iPhone and eBay.

In the case of a hashtag, it is the difference between #thissortofthing and #ThisSortOfThing.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a common categorisation mechanism used on social media websites, I believe it was popularised by Twitter. You tag the content by writing a word preceded by a hash, #Ruby for example.

People can then follow, search, or block specific hashtags to help improve their feed.

Accessible hashtags improve legibility and readability

There is a big difference in legibility between a hashtag that #lookslikethis and one that #LooksLikeThis - however, they are semantically identical, as in, the social network or service you’re writing them on will link them to the same place and they will appear in the same searches. It is just one is way easier to read than the other.

For people who read in the language you’re writing in, who have perfect eyesight and no specific reading problem, such as dyslexia, most will be able to fairly quickly parse two or three words mashed together in a hashtag. But guess what? The vast majority of the world won’t be people native to your language, with perfect eyesight or issues with reading.

I often have brain fog and find myself having to re-read sentences several times. When this happens I’m simply not able to parse the meaning of things that aren’t laid out simply.

Screen Readers and hashtags

Of course not all people consuming your post are reading using their eyes, some are listening to your content with the help of a screen reader, a type of assistive technology.

Most screen readers, including the VoiceOver utility that comes with MacOS don’t know how to read multiple words joined together and assume it is one word and will try and pronounce the best it can.

As you can imagine, or, please, test for yourself, most of the time this comes out as complete jibberish.

Unlike when you are reading an Instagram post and see a collection of hashtags and know you can safely ignore it, a screen reader doesn’t know this isn’t important content and will begin reading it out. I can’t imagine just how annoying this is in practice since I’m not a screen reader user, but it has to be pretty terrible.

Where is this an issue?

Honestly, everywhere. Most notably on social media, but hashtags are also found all around the internet in things like documentation and in articles.

It has becomes such a large part of social media discoverability that often posts are littered with them.

For understandable and technical reasons, it is almost impossible for a system to camel case a hashtag for you. The vast majority of systems will autocomplete with the most used hashtags. If more people used camel case, more people would be exposed it to as an option and (hopefully) pick the better option by default.

Don’t spam hashtags

This isn’t directly related to using camel case, but like many things, before considering if you need to change something, it is good to consider if you need it in the first place.

Knowing that some people interact with the web in ways that make it hard to ignore certain blocks of text, please consider not adding random hashtags to your post in the hope that it improves its discoverability. Your followers will have a much better time if you pick a small handful of very relevant hashtags.

Two favours

Hopefully you’ve got value out of this article!

I’d very much like it if you could do two things.

  1. Start using camel cased hashtags on posts going forward
  2. Link people to this post if you see them overusing non-camel cased hashtags

A note on pascal case

Some people have pointed out that what I’m talking about is actually pascal case, not camel case.

This is a programming distinction and I’m talking about prose, not code. Camel case is by far the most understood term out of the two.

Wikipedia, MDN, and the Cambridge Dictionary all have examples of “CamelCase” being the term, even when the first character is capitalised.

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