I HAVE never been particularly fond of hashtags. It’s not that I have anything against the hash symbol (#), otherwise known in North America as the "number sign" and traditionally used to designate a number, which would, for all intents and purposes, make President Jacob Zuma #1, if certain witnesses at the preliminary investigation into Guptagate are to be believed.

Apart from the fact that it is easily confused with the musical symbol called "sharp", which is infinitely more meaningful and useful, the hash symbol and I get along rather well.

Hashtags, on the other hand, have started to get out of hand, I have noticed.

Far from their humble beginnings in 2007 as a way for Twitter users to group certain messages or subjects together, so that a search for particular hashtags turns up all relevant messages, it has become a hashtag free-for-all out there. It was bad enough when nonsensical hashtagging was confined to Twitter, and then Instagram, but Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, recently decided to follow the trend.

Happily for me, but unfortunately for those who abuse it, inappropriate hashtagging frequently turns around and bites the hashtaggers on the #@$&, if you’ll pardon the pun.

In the world of businesses trying to make their mark on social media, a great deal of intelligent thought should go into choosing a hashtag that doesn’t have the potential to be used to embarrass the company by those with an axe to grind.

The same applies to political parties, as the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) hapless spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, discovered recently, when, without apparently first thinking about it for more than a couple of seconds, he created the #ProudlyBroughtByANC hashtag on Twitter in retaliation against billboard advertisements paid for by the Democratic Alliance in opposition to e-tolling, which declared e-tolls as "proudly brought to you by the ANC".

"Freedom for all South Africans," he tweeted. "Respect for human rights." "A credible and world acclaimed criminal justice system." "Removal of all discrimination and segregation laws from SA landscape." "The constitutional right of all parties to campaign freely without any fear of arrest." And so it went, with each tweet accompanied by the #ProudlyBroughtByANC hashtag. The hashtag was quickly hijacked by people less enamoured with the ANC than Mthembu and now, almost a month later, about 30 anti-ANC tweets a day still go out under the hashtag Mthembu must be wishing he had kept in his head, where it belonged. Anything goes, from crime to corruption, to illiteracy, to Zuma’s bewildering comments on Monday about Malawians and other (non-South African) Africans.

With a bit of research (he obviously does know how to use the internet), Mthembu could have saved himself a whole heap of trouble and embarrassment.

"Hack-taggers" — a term coined by New York Magazine to describe social network users that ambush the hashtags used by companies, brands and politicians, as a form of protest — have been around for a while.

Last year, some genius at McDonald’s thought it would be a great idea to generate some good publicity for the brand by encouraging users to tweet their experiences using the #McDStories hashtag. Needless to say, it went horribly wrong, with people tweeting such gems as "I haven’t been to McDonald’s in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhoea. #McDStories".

To this day, that ill-conceived marketing campaign haunts the company, with the #McDStories tag being attached to much anti-McDonald’s vitriol.

Australian airline Qantas met a similar fate with its #QantasLuxury campaign, generating more tweets along the lines of "26 #Qantas struck down with gastro illness #QantasLuxury" than the kind of positive publicity the airline hoped to achieve.

Things can, and do, get even more hilarious than Mthembu’s trial-by-Twitter, such as when the public-relations experts behind Susan Boyle, the Britain’s Got Talent entrant whose audition video went viral, were plotting the launch of her new CD, choosing the unmistakable and easily misread #susanalbumparty hashtag to accompany all related tweets. They still haven’t lived that down.

When former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher died, the #nowthatchersdead hashtag had fans of a certain elderly US singer and actress (real name: Cherilyn Sarkisian) mourning her untimely demise.

And as for #people who feel the #need to #hashtag every third #word in a #Facebook status #update or a #tweet, for no apparent #reason whatsoever, I suggest a quick and enlightening visit to www.howtohashtag.com to find out exactly what kind of "numbnut" you really are.