Full disclosure: I despise hashtags. They’re visually distracting and over-deployed, to the point where many Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook posts now look like someone got drunk and passed out on his keyboard’s number pad. Even worse, the jerks in marketing have grabbed hold of the hashtag, desperately slapping a “#” before their brand names, all for the purpose of tracking public sentiment and creating really neat-looking graphs and charts to justify spending more money on hashtag-based marketing. To misappropriate a quote from The Thin Red Line, “This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from?”
WSJ’s Digits blog has the answer to that question, and like many evils, the hashtag started innocuously enough.
Back in 2007, Chris Messina, then a user experience designer at Google, dubbed the “hashtag godfather,” asked his Twitter followers, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
He says he was inspired by channel tags used on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and elsewhere to create a “better eavesdropping experience on Twitter… Every time someone uses a channel tag to mark a status, not only do we know something specific about that status, but others can eavesdrop on the context of it and then join in the channel and contribute as well.”
Thus, the distinctiveness of the # sign allowed people to easily search for and follow conversations and topics that they might not have been included on.
He tells Digits that when he brought the idea to the folks at Twitter, they were not receptive.
“[Twitter] told me flat out, ‘These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on,’” Messina recalls.
“Maybe 20 years from now hashtags will seem quaint, but they’re solving an important problem today, allowing people to express more about the content they share in order to connect with more people,” he continues, presumably while cackling in delight at all the annoyance he’s caused people like me.
To clarify, my problem isn’t with the idea of the hashtag, but rather with the implementation (and overuse) of it.
While the “#” might have been a quick shorthand six years ago when Twitter didn’t have the ability to track tags, it could easily have been replaced by allowing users to click a button that would tag a word or, heaven forbid, an entire phrase, thus removing the “#” and not requiring people to squish phrases together into a single hashtagged word.
It would serve the same exact purpose without turning social media into a garble of cleverly collided verbiage and Shift-key symbols.
Messina, who I’m sure is a decent human being and does not pull the wings off butterflies, claims that the continued and expanded use of hashtags “really makes the conversation that much richer and that much more diverse.”
I’d counter that it only further contributes to the decline in meaningful interpersonal communication by seeking to classify and categorize every shared sentiment. But that’s #justme.
To everyone who just came to the post wanting to watch that Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake hashtag video, here you go: