The hashtag at 10 and my interview with Chris Messina a few years back.
Chris launched the idea of using the pound symbol for groups in a tweet 10 years ago today. The hashtag was born August 23, 2007 — and forever it changed social media and the way we engage online.
Even Gary Vaynerchuk mentioned him on the Planet of the Apps, Apple first original series.
And while today Biz Stone celebrated the 10th anniversary with a blog post on Twitter saying “The hashtag was born on Twitter 10 years ago today, and it has become one of the most recognizable and widely used symbols of our time,” the company maybe wasn’t too thrilled about hashtags at first.
Twitter (the company) resisted hashtags in the beginning.
— Chris Messina (September 2013)
Biz writes about his first encounter with Chris and says about the idea: “It was an undeniably elegant proposal, but I really needed to get back to work.” Recalling the meeting he adds: “I turned back to my computer screen to help get Twitter back up and running, hurriedly ending the conversation with a sarcastic, ‘Sure, we’ll get right on that’.”
The rest is history — social media history!
Anyhow, when I interviewed Chris for my book, the conversation not only explored the evolution of the hashtag, but also its use and mis-use, and the nature of the hashtag.
Funny fact: the interview didn’t happen in person, nor via video. It actually happened on Google Docs…
He told me: “Like most technologies, the hashtag itself is a neutral amplifier.”
“Wielded effectively — he said — it can spark conversations or revolutions, or can be used to mislead or obfuscate. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that social media is a reflection of the people who use it and the contexts in which they’re found.”
Talking about the nature of the hashtag, he said: “Broadly speaking, any technology that helps give a larger number of people a voice efficiently and economically is a good thing; then, once it’s been adopted widely, the challenge is to hone its use to increase social and cultural benefit.”
“Hashtags are useful for targeting messages and bringing together topical conversations. Whether the specific uses are good or evil is a matter of perspective.”
The interview also touched upon free speech and power… And believe it or not, even fake news. Again, it was 2014, but the conversation is still very relevant today.
“There are people in positions of power with varying levels of technological sophistication,” Chris told me.
“In some cases, the availability of free social media represents the same kind of threat that a free press does. In these contexts, the free press struggles to exist, and the same is often true of social media.”
When those in power are used to controlling how information flows, the hypersonic speed of information through social media means that unverifiable information can spread unchecked. When a population has not built up a sufficient skepticism of what they read, such information can lead to instability or overreaction.
Chris pointed out that “the use of hashtags is still relatively new, and requires a great deal of technical proficiency and awareness.”
“First — he said — you have to really use a computer, more likely a mobile device. Then you have to be aware of the internet and how it works, and then you have to understand how people consume and use social media. You then need to have some sense for the difficulty of targeting content on social media, or of having your content be found by others, and then you have to understand that the simple use of the # symbol will create a clickable link in your content.
He added: “That’s a lot to understand, let alone do effectively.”
“Many of us take this knowledge for granted, but as I said, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed — and this knowledge gap also plays into why people fear social media, and why they act to shut it down, or censor it. Some know very well what’s at stake, and want to maintain their control over how information is shared and spread. Others, in seeking to control what they don’t understand, act out of fear and ignorance — attempting to take away the advantage that others may have over them.”
I can’t agree with Chris more: “This is why digital literacy is so important — and I believe we are still at the very beginning of informing the world of what technology is, what it can do, and how to use it for the best possible outcomes for humanity.”
Food for thought!