Two of the most important symbols to know on Twitter and Instagram—and, to a lesser extent, Facebook—are @ and #. They help you to connect with people you know, with your potential audience, and with those who share your interests. Basically, these are the symbols that truly help you network.

Those of us who’ve spent countless hours on social media can easily forget that people aren’t born knowing how to use @ and #. We write articles and host podcasts about social media, telling authors to “tag” other users or use “hashtags,” not realizing we may as well be speaking Ancient Greek. This article will help you understand what we mean when we tell you to “tag” people or to use “hashtags,” how to use them, and why these are such important functions.

Tagging People with the @ (“at”) Symbol

Social networking is meant to be used, well, socially. You “tag” other users in order to get their attention, share something with them, or let your followers know who you’re talking about. Some occasions of tagging are referred to as “mentions,” especially on Twitter. For the sake of simplicity, we will stick to “tag” in this article.

When you think about it, it makes sense that social media platforms have assigned the @ (“at”) symbol to this function. It indicates that you’re communicating at someone. Just like, in real life, you might holler at someone: “Ann! Come here so I can show you this cool new book!” Or you might point at the person you’re talking about: “Dave over there wrote this excellent book about modern education.”

There are a few reasons to tag another user:

  1. You want them to see what you’re posting and perhaps interact with you further.
  2. You want your audience to know exactly who you’re talking about.
  3. You want to support them and their work.

This is what happens when you use @ to tag a person or a business page:

  1. Their name (or username) is turned into a link that others can click in order to reach their profile.
  2. They are notified that you’ve tagged them. (Exceptions: Some users, especially those with thousands or millions of followers, have adjusted their notification settings to exclude this type of notification.)

It’s very easy to tag other users or business pages. Simply type @ in a post, and then start typing their name or username:


If you already follow them, their name will likely come up as an option as soon as you’ve typed the first letter.

The basics of tagging people is the same across platforms. Whether you’re on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, the function is about the same. Still, here is a quick overview of what it looks like on those three social networks:


If you are on Facebook, chances are high that you’ve been “tagged” in a photo—or that you’ve even tagged others in your photos or posts. Depending on the situation, the person tagging you probably didn’t use the @ symbol. If it was a photo, Facebook might have even detected your face and asked your friend whether they wanted to tag you. They clicked “yes,” and now all their friends and yours know you had spinach between your teeth last Tuesday. If it was a text post, they might have started typing your name without the @, and Facebook realized what they were trying to do.

Whether you’re tagging a company like Deep River Books, your friend, or an author’s professional page, the process is simple: type @ and, without spaces, their name.

In fact, @ isn’t exactly native to Facebook. They added that function later. For a long time, tagging a friend—and then, later, a business page—required at least a couple mouse clicks. Today, you simply need to start typing.


Twitter users start becoming familiar with the @ symbol as soon as they sign up. They are required to have a unique username (“Twitter handle”), which is always shown with @ in front of it. Sometimes, their real name is available as a username—but often, it’s not. So Bob Smith, for example, might have the Twitter handle @BobSmithAuthor or @AuthorSmith. He can still have his name display as Bob Smith, but his handle/username will appear as well.

If you mention someone by tagging them with the @ symbol, the @ remains visible, unlike on Facebook. Because of this, Twitter users become accustomed to seeing and using @ much more quickly. Before long, it will become natural to use the @ sign when talking to or about another user:


Like Twitter, Instagram requires users to choose unique usernames when signing up. The @ symbol isn’t as ubiquitous as on Twitter. When people are tagged in photos, only their username appears. The effect is similar to when someone is tagged in a Facebook photo. But the @ symbol is still used when you tag someone in your bio, descriptions, or comments. Like on Twitter, the username, not the user’s actual name, appears.

Using #Hashtags to Organize, Search, and Connect

Hashtags, marked by the hash, or pound, sign (#), have multiple uses, the last of which can muddy the waters for folks new to them:

  1. Provide an easy way to search for content related to a certain topic.
  2. Organize your content, so all posts related to your blog or book can be found in one place.
  3. Help you connect with others who are Tweeting about the same topic.
  4. Provide an ironic, humorous, or otherwise superfluous tone to a descriptor. Don’t worry; you don’t need to understand this reason when you start. You’ll begin to understand it intuitively if you start spending very much time online.

The term “hashtag” can mean one of a couple things:

  1. n. The hash or pound sign itself: #
  2. n. The word with a # in front of it. #hashtag.

While tagging people allows you to connect directly with individuals, hashtags help you connect with a network of posts and people related to your topic. They help other users find your posts, too. For example, one popular hashtag on Twitter is #amwriting. If you search #amwriting, or click on #amwriting when the link appears in your or another’s Tweet, you will be met by many, many Tweets. All of these are by other writers who are procrastinating on their actual writing or have advice for fellow writers—or by writing-related accounts that know this is a great way to get their Tweets in front of writers. You will also find users who included the hashtag #amwriting in their bios.

Hashtags that are unique to your book can help users easily find more posts related to you and your topic. For example, novelist John Prather uses the hashtag #TheNephilimVirus to identify his book-related posts on Instagram.


Users who want to immediately find all his posts on the topic can simply click #TheNephilimVirus. In addition, readers have taken pictures with the book and tagged their pictures with #TheNephilimVirus. This allows readers to connect with one another and point people back to the author and his posts about the book. It also allows both author and fans to keep track of what others are saying about the book; on Instagram, you can follow a hashtag. So if, for example, Prather follows #TheNephilimVirus, then any time a user includes that hashtag in their post, it will show up in his Instagram feed—even if he isn’t following that user. (The process for following a hashtag on Twitter isn’t as clean, at least not in its regular website and mobile app—instead of following the hashtag, you save the search for the hashtag. Then, you can easily search for the hashtag on a regular basis in Twitter’s browser version, just with a few clicks.)

Key note: Don’t use too many hashtags, lest people dismiss you as a spammer. Choose one or two per post on Twitter and Facebook. On Instagram, you can use more, provided each hashtag is truly relevant to your post—but if your hashtag count reaches the double digits, proceed with caution.

Hashtags work, generally, the same way across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. However, they’re not native to Facebook, so they may not help you connect with potential readers as effectively. In addition, it’s more acceptable to place a hashtag in the middle of sentence on Twitter, where you have limited space, than on Instagram and Facebook, where it’s often better to save the hashtags for the end of the post.

Tag, You’re It!

Tagging people and using hashtags are essential parts of social networking. The @ and # symbols provide ways to connect with people who may not have known about you otherwise. But they’ve become more than tools—they are part of the language of social media. As you watch how others use them and begin to practice using them yourself, you’ll find they become part of your lexicon. On the other hand, if you don’t start using @ and # to connect with fellow social media users, you may begin to feel like you are on an island, disconnected from the audiences you most want to reach—and from the communities of writers and experts who could provide support.