Hashtags: the Little Prince of all media
Text of an interview I gave to Paul Katool of Mad Genius
Update:The interview has been published on Mad Genius.
The day before yesterday, after noticing that Polyvore had adopted hashtags, I openly wondered who’d be next. Lo, not 24 hours later — I had my answer with Facebook finally announcing support, long after being rumored. Considering how Twitter has embraced hashtags for advertising, it’s clear to the advertising angle here.
Anyway, in honor of this occassion, I thought I’d answer a few frequently asked questions, just to sate people’s curiousity:
How did you come up with the idea for the hashtag?
It’s pretty well documented on my blog and elsewhere, but basically a bunch of us early Twitter users were looking for a way to help us target our content more effectively, and give people a way to tune into conversations they were interested in. Lots of folks were suggesting that Twitter add groups (with all the typical management overhead) but I felt those ideas really weren’t mobile-friendly. It seemed to me that IRC had a useful convention for different “channels”, so I cribbed that and suggested that you could just add a tag prefixed with “#” anywhere in your tweet, and it’d get “added it to that channel”. Simple, efficient, and worked over SMS — which was the primary way I used Twitter back then.
When was your “aha moment” — when did you think “wow this hashtag idea I came up with is becoming a pretty big deal!”
Basically once conservative Republicans started to tweeting using the hashtag #dontgo to keep Congress in session and force a vote on an energy bill, and I knew that this meant that hashtags were going to break out of the geekosphere and eventually hit mainstream. I mean, if they could be used for political purposes, that immediately blew up their relevance and utility to the rest of the world.
This is a bit broad, but what’s the single most positive impact/contribution the hashtag has made on society today?
First, I don’t want to overstate the importance of the hashtag — because it’s really just a harbinger for the continuous spread of social media over the past decade. I mean, I do like to gloat a bit about how far the hashtag has come — but its success in the marketplace is humbling. I mean, I feel like that guy that invented the GIF, except he did a lot more hard work. I spent a lot of time working on technologies that I’d hoped would unify the social web and give people more choice — and instead of any of those efforts taking off, this stupid, stupid idea I had ending up being the thing that caught fire. Go figure.
To answer this question though, I think you have to take a step back and think about what’s been hard about social media — finding other people to connect with. Many social networks spend an outsize amount of effort getting you to connect to other people, but oftentimes it’s really hard to find commonality. Hashtags make connecting with other people who are talking about or experiencing the same things much, much easier. And they’re light-weight enough that you can create one on the spot, without much thinking, and suddenly get a movement going — even if it’s short-lived. So, from that perspective, hashtags have lowered the cost of participating in the social web for everyone — and made it easier to connect to people in a fun, lightweight, serendipitous way.
You’ve got to be proud about Facebook introducing hashtag support. What was it like/how did you feel when you first learned Facebook was doing this?
I’ll tell you a nerdy secret about me — I love reading app updates in the App Store. It’s weird, but whatever. I learn so much and see so many of the trends unfolding just by seeing how apps are changing themselves to meet their users’ desires. So — for months I’ve been seeing loads of apps adding support for hashtags and @mentions. They’re just the obvious conventions for new apps to support out of the gate. And when you think about networks that have APIs that allow these apps to publish into them, it’s only a matter of time before hastagged content that originate elsewhere starts to become a staple of the first-party experience. And then it’s like — why wouldn’t you respond to people’s behavior?
There’s also a really useful ability to promote hashtags across mediums and across networks — which suggests a nascent advertising opportunity. Twitter’s all over this. It’s totally logical to find ways to capitlize and embrace emergent user behavior.
So, any time I see a new app or network add support for hashtags — I’m like, “Sweet! Another win for the social web!”
Do people overdo it with hashtags when it comes to correspondence/communication with you? If so, does this ever get annoying?
With me? Ha! — no. If anything, I probably annoy my coworkers with my incessant use of hashtags in chat, email, and on whiteboards. I’m sure they’re annoyed, but they never tell me. That’s just how it is. #exceptForTheirPassiveAggressiveHeadshakes
What’s the single-most creative (or your favorite) use of a hashtag you’ve ever seen?
Betabrand recently added hashtags to their clothing tags. That was pretty awesome:
Any idea what the first hashtag you used on Twitter was?
Pretty sure it was #barcamp. In fact, according to some digging I did in my Twitter archive, I didn’t use another hashtag for another two weeks after that first one. And even after that, they were somewhat few and far between. To think I have the data to know with certainty — incredible!
When did you notice that people were really taking it up?
This question is similar to the previous one — one I think it’s a little different in that there was a moment where I thought “Yes, I think this will catch on” (as I suggested above) versus the growing number of situations where it started to see people using hashtags in the wild. Two cases really stick out — one was when I saw a hashtag on a bus in New York City. That was the first time I saw a hashtag randomly in the world around me. The second time was when I opened up a Glamour magazine and they had a bunch of hashtags in their ads. My jaw kind of dropped. It was like — “Holy shit — hashtags in a fashion magazine?!” That’s when I knew they’d gone beyond anything I might have imagined, and had become their own self-propagating thing.
You have a huge instagram following but you don’t use hashtags there. Any reason.
Well — I use Instagram primarily as a visual medium to just capture pretty or interesting things that I see. I’m not really trying to join a conversation with my photos, or get a ton of followers (though that seems to have happened without really trying #paysToBeEarly). I see people use loads of hashtags and that’s fine — but it’s just not for me, most of the time. I guess I’m a little lazy when it comes down to it. Or prefer a little obscurity sometimes. Yeah, #ironic, I know.
ª Where “all” primarily means Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Path, and a host of other networks. It’s really just a matter of time. Really.
Originally published at chrismessina.me on June 13, 2013.