August 23: Happy Birthday, #hashtag!
Where would we be without the hashtag?
What would a philosophy of the hashtag look like?
How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]? — Chris Messina, (“factoryjoe”), August 23, 2007
That’s the birth moment of the Twitter hashtag right there. The concept of tagging words with a hash sign was already common before. It was used in IRC to name channels, for example, and in HTML to jump to a particular place inside the same webpage. A nice history of the hashtag is here.
The hashtag is a curious thing. Its defining feature, the hash character, doesn’t even have a proper name. From England comes the name ‘pound sign,’ but the hash character is everything but. A pound sign looks like that: “£.” The only reason why someone called it ‘pound sign’ is that the British keyboard has its (proper) pound character at the same place (Shift-3) as the hash character. One of the inventors of the character apparently called it (God forbid) the ‘octothorpe’:
One of the first locations to be fully fitted with Bell’s new Touch Tone technology was the Mayo Clinic. When it was time to train the staff of the Mayo Clinic on using the new system, Bell’s Don McPherson coined the praise “octothorpe” to refer to the hashtag on the Touch Tone phones. It is said that McPherson came up with the name by combining the eight points “octo” and his favorite athlete, Olympian Jim Thorpe, to create a term that would be used throughout Bell Labs. – (Joe Fortunato)
Hash characters don’t have much of a meaning themselves. They modify the meaning of the word that comes after them. In this way, they are markup rather than content, similar to quote characters or the sequence “<i>” in HTML. But, as opposed to those, their purpose is not to be displayed or to alter the way things are displayed. They are semantic markup, meant to group items of content into loose clusters.
As markup, they are terrible to work with. First, what if you need a #multi #word #hashtag? The impossibility of escaping the space character is sure to infuriate every programmer who tries to use them efficiently.
Then, they are prone to small permutations that should not affect meaning. #Donald, #donald, #the #donald, #the-donald, #doland are probably all meant to refer to the same thing, but there’s quite a bit of algorithmic magic involved in finding out which similar-looking tags are actually referring to the same thing and which aren’t. Not to mention that completely different tags, like #trump and #potus, should also be understood to refer to the same real-world entity; except if we’re talking about #disney #donald #duck.
Since there’s only one level of markup and no hierarchical structure, it’s also impossible to distinguish #cloud #storage from #cloud #rain if the user only searches for #cloud.
Tags spread through populations in ways that have aroused the interest of scientists: “A new perspective on Twitter hashtag use: Diffusion of innovation theory” (Chang, 2011) offers a theoretical framework to describe hashtag adoption.
The social cause marker
But hashtags have also had a much more central function in society.
#MeToo is perhaps the most prominent example of a viral hashtag that actually created an online, international community of people who shared a common interest. It is hard to imagine the MeToo movement without their hashtag. The hashtag here became both an identifying symbol for the group that used it (so that it ended up on T-Shirts and mugs, where, of course, it is not functional at all), and a means of connecting to and contributing to a particular discourse. In this way, a hashtag creates a virtual, on-the-fly publication that is focused on one particular topic and that is open to contributions from anyone, without the possibility of exercising any editorial control.
Although this can be empowering and beneficial, it also helps spread misinformation and can, in some instances, create online mobs by amplifying sentiments of discontent and sharing them among spontaneously generated online communities. Due to the lack of access control to these communities, their rapid worldwide reach, the communicative power that they confer on their members, and the low cost of participation in them, virtual hashtag-constituted communities tend to attract all kinds of users. Not only those who actually have something to say, but also those who just want to get attention, pursue some other agenda, or just harm and troll others.
It’s not clear what (if anything) could or should be done about this. Dictatorships have found it prudent to completely ban access to Twitter for this reason.
But democracies also have an interest in a civil and orderly discourse, and should seek to suppress contributions that are only meant to harm other citizens or the society at large without providing actual value. This, of course, is opposed to the idea of freedom of speech. So each society must find its own way of balancing freedom of speech, access to a public voice, and minimising harm. This was easier when the only public media where controlled newspapers and TV channels with their gatekeepers. It was also still easy as long as participation in the Internet meant setting up one’s own news- or http server. But access control has become impossible in a world where every citizen carries a phone that allows him or her to enter any discussion at any moment by typing out a hashtag.
So that’s it. The hashtag. It looks so simple: just four lines. Two crosses printed a bit off from each other. But it has severely affected modern democratic discourse. It has brought us entirely new levels of democratic participation, but also of trolling and the creation of mobs that can, in extreme cases, even threaten democracy and the rule of law.
Perhaps access to the hashtag should be regulated? Should we have a hash-tax? A keyboard driver that connects Shift-3 to one’s credit card, so that the state can deduct 0.1 cents every time the user presses that key? Or should we have keyboards with and without hashtags? A hashtag driving licence?
I don’t know. For the time being all I can say is: #Happy #Birthday, #hashtag!