The hashtag turns 13

An interview with the hashtag inventor on the symbol’s unlikely role during a challenging and unruly cultural moment

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This interview was given to Andres Lomeña (professor, doctor of sociology, and contributor to Common Action Forum) for the Huffington Post. The Spanish version of this interview can be found here:

Andres Lomeña’s questions are prefixed with AL.
My answers are prefixed with CM.

AL:You have told hashtag’s origins many times, so I wonder if you have considered to write a book about it.

CM: Ha, indeed I have! But less about the hashtag itself, although I’m sure there are plenty of interesting stories to tell. Instead, I’m personally more interested in contemplating the individual’s role and responsibility for the technology products that they create, and what obligations they might have in socializing their motivations, intentions, and purpose, and reflecting on the consequences of their work.

I don’t tire of recounting the origin story of the hashtag because I’m the only person who can tell it. And now that the hashtag has become so widely adopted around the world, I have a unique perspective and insight to offer other people who may (or may not) want to “change the world”, so that I can help them better understand what it might mean if they succeed in that goal.

AL: I interviewed the historian Ian Milligan about his book History in the age of abundance: how the web is transforming historical research. Your contribution seems simple but it is going to add a new chapter to library science, right? Perhaps you are like a new Melvil Dewey

CM: I’ve thought about this a bit and I think there’s a difference with the hashtag and the Dewey Decimal system in several aspects:

  1. The Dewey Decimal System isn’t semantic — meaning that’s it’s a system of indirect reference. Through oblique notation, it will help you find the book or material that you’re seeking, but the numbers themselves don’t mean anything. So if I asked you what I might find in schedule 516.375, unless you had memorized the index, you wouldn’t be able to tell me that it pertained to “Finsler geometry” merely by inspecting the number “516.375”.
  2. The Dewey Decimal System attempts to classify all subject matter hierarchically, but that is not the nature of reality. As I experience it, reality is relational, and therefore a weighted graph of relationships is more appropriate. Trying to fit everything into a strict hierarchy feels patriarchal and rigid, whereas focusing on the interrelatedness of all things is more generative and adaptive.
  3. Your mention of abundance is perhaps where the where the hashtag most deviates from Dewey’s classification model. A product of the internet era, hashtags will never be exhaustive or limited. Like cells of a more complex organism, they are intended to multiply or die off according to their circumstantial utility. A hashtag that has outlived its purpose or been overrun by spam or abuse will fall into disuse; a Dewey category, once recognized, will never die, and worse-over, the system does not adapt to modern conventions or the evolution of cultural norms. Some might argue that that is a feature, but I do not.

AL: Hashtags have evolved during its thirteen years. Could you distinguish stages in this fast evolution?

CM: I don’t know if “hashtags have evolved” as much as the language that people use on social media has become more sophisticated. It wasn’t long ago that I had to teach people what a hashtag was and awkwardly try to explain how to use them. In the earliest days of the hashtag, I associated my social media posts with a particular real world event by using the event’s hashtag, and found related content by searching for the same tag. Now I see all kinds of creativity and expression in the use of hashtags.

For one thing, people have realized that the most obvious hashtags just aren’t that useful and compelling. On some platforms, that’s due to the improvements in computer vision and machine learning that make it redundant to add tags like #sunset or #cat. Instead, people are using hashtags more purposely — as content unto themselves, rather solely for the purpose of classification or labeling.

At once, people target their comments towards public hashtag conversations like #WakandaForever (to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman), or want to demonstrate their allegiance to groups or movements with tags like #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, or #BlueLivesMatter.

People have realized that participatory and evocative hashtags tend to perform the best, in terms of inciting conversation and reaction, and have adapted their language (and use of hashtags) accordingly. It’s a marvel to observe, given how confounded people were with the concept not long ago!

AL: What happened to the semantic web? Perhaps hashtags is already a sort of semantic web…

CM: It’s a hard won lesson, but Occam’s Razor is alive and well: the simplest possible solution is likely the one that will win in the end. It certainly can be invigorating to dive deep into the academic deep end of a problem space and attempt to “boil the ocean” (as Dewey did) and create some kind of massive ontological map of reality, but due to any number of unpredictable or unknown-at-the-time externalities, your complex solution is unlikely to gain widespread adoption naturally because it will invariably break.

This is, from my perspective, why the semantic web didn’t succeed; there were just too many exceptions to apply the model to the web of information consistently, quickly, and with minimal effort by the most number of actors. It boils down to simple behavioral economics… it’s easier to teach a computer how to make sense of information than to convince a billion (or more) humans to be more precise, predictable, and disciplined in how they publish information.

Even Google and Facebook, which offer enormous benefits to individuals and firms who excel at search engine optimization through applied metadata, have likely only improved the semantic web by 10%-15%. A major drawback of conventional semantic web initiatives is that it’s just too slow to adapt to the dynamic and constantly evolving nature of the public discourse, and as a result, provides very little benefit to the real-time conversation web. As a result, a much less-restrictive, open-ended, and adaptive format that anyone can use to express metadata is needed, and I believe that’s why hashtags have succeeded, while the semantic web has limped along.

AL: We translate the symbol # like “almohadilla” [little pillow], so it is a very comfy word to me. # has been used in chess, in HTML and in programming languages for comments. Could it die of success? Have you ever considered another symbol to achieve a new function? Tab key, for instance, has a good history too.

CM: Many people have asked me “creating a new hashtag”, but that idea makes little sense in isolation. I didn’t set out to “create the hashtag”; I wanted to address a gap in SMS-based social media that I, and many other early Twitter users, were struggling with — namely, how could we continue to enjoy the fast and easy approach to publishing that Twitter provided while making each of our 140 character missives richer in content and context. Applying a known convention from internet relay chat (IRC) to Twitter was a matter of necessity, rather than invention for invention’s sake. That the symbol was also one of only two extended characters on the numeric keypad of feature phones at the time was also essential (remember, the iPhone had just come out in the beginning of 2007; my proposal for the hashtag was published in August of that year, before touchscreen devices were in the majority).

For another “behavioral technology” like the hashtag to take off today, it’d be important to understand the context, constraints, and unmet desires of a highly motivated group of people with similar goals. I’m sure such opportunities exist, I just doubt that they’d take the same format as the hashtag.

AL: You have said that #BlackLivesMatter if one of your favorite hashtags. Do you feel comfortable talking about politics? Sadly, we have Jacob Blake’s shooting now. In your opinion, what has to be done in America?

CM: Considering the modest origins of the hashtag, I’m proud that my contribution to social media has found a structural role in helping to galvanize participatory conversations in the mainstream. It’s not necessarily due to the hashtag that we’re having these conversations today about race, gender equity, and economic disparity, but it does play a role in leveling the playing field in terms of who can participate without a priori permission or access. For example, many of the voices sharing the experiences of racial injustice, intolerance, and racism in the America may have been present before, but coordinating through a hashtag has allowed those voices to come together in a chorus which is much louder and thus harder to ignore than before.

While I care deeply about the ailments affecting America today, I also recognize my privilege in being able to speak out without fear. Rather than pretending to have answers, I’ve been developing my ability to listen non-defensively, in order to better offer witness to the suffering, anxiety, and anger that is daily experienced by so many Americans. I don’t believe that there is a fast and easy solution to undoing the consequences of generations of colonial transgression and exploitation. It will take generations of speaking up, listening, acknowledging, integrating, healing, and then adapting our social contracts to provide greater equity, access, and safety for every member of humankind. But just as the catharsis that is underway today didn’t start in 2020, I don’t expect to see an end to this turmoil for some time — but at least now there’s a much greater awareness with which we must contend.

AL: In Spain, we not only use “?”, but “¿”. The beginning of a question is also important. But we are losing this symbol because of English, which is more pragmatic. What do you miss, if anything, from our digital culture?

CM: Many of my friends think about the era from 2006–2009 as a kind of Golden Era of the web. It certainly felt like there was a lot more innocence, good natured experimentation, and innovation. But of course at the same time, the roots of the current monopoly powers were growing and spreading then too. There was growing awareness of the power of internet-connected digital technology as it became mainstream and many of us were excited about democratizing access to connect the “global village”, as McLuhan called it.

We naively failed to anticipate what would happen once the world was brought online. Rather than joining a global village full of citizens who recognized our commonalities and interconnectedness, instead, age-old cultural schisms were revealed and amplified. The knowledge and information that we sought to liberate and share with the world became weaponized, and rather than bringing about a new era of curiosity and enlightenment, the deep divisions and inequities within and across cultures were amplified as cultural contexts collapsed.

It all sounds pretty grim looking back from the current moment, and I suppose it is. I feel like I, and many of my peers, were acting as Prometheus did, bringing fire down from the gods hoping that people would learn to cook and heat their homes, and instead they realized that this new power could be wielded as a weapon against one another.

So perhaps it’s naive to wish to return to that earlier era, but I also know that history moves in waves, and as a defiant optimistic, I’m hopeful that once the novelty of these new powers wears off, we’ll enter into a more stable era where we use these technological advancements for human and planetary betterment, rather than to foment strife. A guy can hope, right?

AL: Who is your inspiration? Scott Fahlman? Tim Berners-Lee? Chris Messina (the actor)?

CM: I am amused that I hailed from the same university of the inventor of the emoticon. That must say something about Carnegie Mellon’s linguistic prowess. :)

I am also a fan of TBL, as well as Marc Andreessen, and Tim O'Reilly — many of the OG open web/open internet gangsters.

I appreciate Chris Messina (the actor)’s rise to stardom in the last decade. Prior to his ascent, I was the first result in Google for “Chris Messina”, but sadly, through the years I’ve learned that famous actors have a far easier time when it comes to SEO than mere technologists. 😅

AL: What is your favorite free software program (I like and use Libreoffice)? And your favorite programming language?

CM: I don’t know if this counts, but as a fan of the web, I do think that Chrome is an incredible piece of software, which enables so much more. Given all the controversy around proprietary app stores, the fact that you can still access any website through Chrome means that there continues to be an opening for permissionless innovation.

I admit that I am not a developer, although I’ve spent most of my career working around and with developers and engineers. I dabble in different kinds of programming, but I’m not sure that I have a favorite language per se. I’m keen on web technologies though, including HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.

AL: Could you recommend us a book, a movie, a band, some food and a place to visit? There are five questions here, actually.

CM: More than ever, I think McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” is a necessary read.

Movie: It’s not a movie, but I strongly recommend Hollywood on Netflix.

Band: Really digging BRONSON lately.

Food: Can I say black coffee?

Place to visit: The rainbow eucalyptus forest in Golden Gate Park.

AL: Any conclusion? Would you like to add anything?

CM: Sorry to end on a negative note, but #Fuck2020.

Written by

Inventor of the hashtag. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Previously: Google, Uber, Molly (YC W18).

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