Wait. Isn’t that a pound sign?
That was my reaction the first time I heard ‘#’ referred to as a “hashtag”.
Maybe I’m old fashioned. I’m definitely out of the loop on most things, and the hashtag was no different. I’ve never participated in any internet chat forums, and I was a relative late comer to the Twitter party. One day I realized I was using Facebook for all the wrong reasons (posting only short jokes and useless observations, typically 140 characters or less). Someone suggested I take my tired act to Twitter, so I did.
The first thing I noticed, and was confused by, was the use of the # symbol.
“Why is everyone putting a pound sign in front of a bunch of words smushed together with no spaces? Are they out of room? Is that a phone number? Am I having a stroke?”
I turned to my select few trusted friends who are always ahead of me with technology and social networking (we all have those friends) and got the scoop. The pound sign is now called a ‘hashtag’ and if used correctly, it makes certain keywords more easily searchable in places like Twitter, Instagram, and other discussion channels.
Thing is, according to Wikipedia (that phrase now begins over 34% of my sentences), a ‘hashtag’ is actually the word or phrase that comes AFTER the # symbol.
Wait, the # is NOT the hashtag? Come on.
Just when I thought I had this shit down.
Whatevs. Let’s take a look at the journey of the hashtag.
The hashtag as a search function
The original, most useful function of a hashtag was to assign a keyword to a piece of information to make it more easily findable via browser or search engine. For example, YouTube users add tags to their videos, making them findable for someone searching for that particular tag.
Now you can search for all videos with the tags “cotton candy, diapers, female pirates, Efferdent”; if you’re into that kind of thing. A hashtag was just another form of a tag, making the information that has been tagged searchable.
The hashtag as a conversation starter
The use of the hashtag, as well as the public’s awareness of it, rose with the growth of Twitter. Open source advocate Chris Messina is regarded as the Father of the Twitter Hashtag, introducing it as a way for people to find others talking about subjects they are interested in.
Hypothetically – let’s say I joined Twitter primarily to keep up on Taylor Swift news. Hypothetically means ‘definitely’, right? Anyway, I would enter #TaylorSwift into the Twitter search function and I’d see all of the tweets that have the #TaylorSwift hashtag in them. I can jump in the conversation anywhere I want and introduce my self as a big-time Swifty, ready to talk with other Swifties. (yeah, that’s a thing.)
“We love you Tay-Tay!”- Swifties everywhere
The only problem with this is nowadays you are more likely to find helpful results if you just search ‘Taylor Swift’ instead of #TaylorSwift. I’ll tell you why in the next paragraph.
The hashtag as a comedic tool
If you scroll through the typical Twitter feed, my guess is over half of the #hashtags you see in use are not employed as a means of helping others find those tweets, but as an attempt to be funny. Here’s an example:
— UnderScoopFire (@underscoopfire) October 15, 2012
See what I did there? It sucked, I know. I said “attempt to be funny”.
Hashtags are intended to help people find others talking about specific topics, but no one in the world is searching for who else is talking about “Not Scantron” or “put away your number 2 pencils”.
This is what confused me most when I first joined Twitter. It’s a special written dialect that only Twitter users recognize. When you see someone do this on Facebook, you know they have a Twitter account. That hashtag with a whole thought strung together at the end with no spaces- sometimes it’s like a glimpse into that person’s inner dialogue. Sometimes it’s a punch line. Sometimes it stands in contrast to what the main tweet said, as if to show some inner conflict on the behalf of the tweeter.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about don’t feel bad – if you’re over 14 years old it takes a while to fully grasp.
The hashtag as a means of polling
Companies now use hashtags to do market research and get a feel for their audience’s preferences.
Every Monday night on WWE Raw, the producers attempt to make the show feel more interactive. They ask the viewers things like “What kind of match do you want to see?” or “What should this new tag team be called?” The questions are multiple choice, with three or four hashtags as the choices. The only way viewers can submit their vote is to take to Twitter and send a tweet with the hashtag of their selection.
Here’s an example of something they would put on the screen:
What type of match should John Cena & CM Punk compete in tonight?
The fans’ choice is inevitably the most ridiculous option, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, in this instance the hashtag was used as a means of collecting data. Of those four options, the hashtag that appears in the most tweets within the given “voting” time frame is the winner.
Bottom line is, WWE just got a whole mess of people to tweet about its product. Companies and networks also encourage users to tweet certain hashtags to promote events, such as #PerfectStrangersReunion or #OscarMeyerOliveLoafFest2012.
Why is this site’s logo a hashtag?
I’ll try to make this as quick as possible. On our podcast, we discuss lots of things. When each episode debuts, we tweet the link to that show, hoping people will click the link and listen to the show. Early on, we jokingly began inserting forced references to things like Justin Bieber and coupons, just so we could include #JustinBieber and #coupons in our tweets about the show, hoping to broaden our appeal to the masses on Twitter.
We realized we were using it wrong, but we thought it was funny. It became a weekly contest to see who on the show could throw out the oddest hashtag, to which we would all verbally proclaim “Hashtag!!” after whatever odd thing was mentioned.
Example: On episode #39, during a discussion of LEGO and the various geek-friendly licenses they offer (ie. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel) someone mentioned “Murder She Wrote LEGOs”, which was followed by someone immediately shouting “Hashtag!” (meaning- make sure you put #LEGOMurderSheWrote in the tweet about this podcast, since so many millions of Twitter users are undoubtedly searching for others talking about Angela Lansbury LEGOs).
Long story short (too late), we took to using the hashtag as the unofficial mascot of the show and site, and our resident graphic designer Tank whipped up our logo whom we affectionately refer to as Hashy. He occasionally changes colors and outfits in observance of holidays, anniversaries and events.
I hope this was informative. Come back next week for our lesson on ‘trending’, as I try to explain why anyone would want to know what movie title would best describe your sex life.