Chris Messina
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Chris Messina

The Linguistic Inner Tube

Ever wonder: who first put a dollar sign in front of a number? Why did they do it, and when?

Moreover, what motivated the invention of currency symbols in the first place? What made it necessary to differentiate between generic counting numbers and monetary figures? Which currency symbols came first, and did all currencies race to find representation in their own unique typographic symbol? What went into the design process of these symbols? Were they on physical money first? Do currency symbols go extinct when their associated civilizations go bust?

Back to the dollar sign… why does it live in front of the number and not behind it like other currencies (i.e. like the Euro (€) or even the lowly cent (¢))?

I’m fascinated by questions like this because I’m the guy that put the pound symbol (#) in front of a word or concatenated phrase to create the hashtag.

When I came up with the hashtag back in the summer of 2007, I was pretty clear about my audience: other techies and geeks like me who appreciated clear, efficient, and clever language hacks. Since we spent so much time talking to computers on its terms (that is, via the command line interface), we were always looking for ways to to pack more meaning into fewer keypresses. What’s that they say about developers being lazy?

File storage was expensive. Sending and receiving data was expensive and slow. The cloud hadn’t been built out. We didn’t have fast and reliable mobile connectivity everywhere. Consequently, etiquette demanded compressing photos and music and zipping files to lower the cost of sending, receiving, and storing them. Finding an effective algorithm to shrink down data saved you and your intended recipients money ($$$)!

As we proved that the internet could be a platform not just for business applications but for self-expression, we sought increased convenience and access. Telephony was freed from the shackles of the landline and mobile communication technology became more affordable and consumer friendly. With this growing popularity, hackers and phreakers exploited obscure nooks and crannies in this digital substrate, unearthing a hidden message bus that could be used to send 160 ASCII characters between phones. What had been set aside as a technical feature for transmitting reception strength and information about incoming calls between telephony equipment would become known as SMS (short message service).

As professionals discovered that short text messages offered greater convenience and efficiency than the formalism and effort required by voice calls, use of this medium increased (consumer adoption was delayed by the 10¢/message postage).

Gradually text messaging was rolled into standard cellular phone plans and texting grew in popularity, especially among teens trying to avoid being caught passing notes in class. The ease, frequency, and adaptability of texting laid the behavioral foundation for productizing SMS. The first publishing service to capitalize on this trend sported a preposterously compressed name, wholly befitting the medium: twttr.

twttr circa 2006

Initially critics scoffed at the incessant self-talk and chirpy chatter of this emergent communications backwater. Sure, it was well known that humans are an especially social species, but prior to Twitter it was hard to overestimate just how much we communicate amongst and with ourselves — all day, every day, from the moment we rise to the moment we doze off.

Not that our cacophonous tweets didn’t have precedent — but in form, not ubiquity. The telegram gave people an effective text-only channel to send point-to-point, short-form messages. But Twitter’s innovation — scaffolded upon the success of the web — made heretofore private messages visible for all. That telegrams required you to specify your audience prior to transmission inhibited its use to broadcast information to recipients unknown. There was no way to set a telegram’s addressee field to “everyone”; Twitter had no such restriction.

The instantaneous dissemination and accessibility of tweets — for free — is novel to this epoch. Twitter dispensed with publisher-gatekeepers and replaced them with an all-seeing, self-optimizing algorithm. The price for open publishing, direct access, and decentralization was chaos and unpredictability. Suffusing with new voices beyond the original monoculture from Silicon Valley, Twitter’s social tributaries began to take shape. But in the frothy churn of Twitter monologues, each new tweet elbows its way past the previous in reverse chronological order. Although intentional, the pace of new content made it hard for newcomers to find their kin and for experienced Twitterati to engage in coherent discussion. Topical eddies and thematic tide pools briefly formed only to succumb to the relentless surf.

But earlier social networks had cleaved out dedicated areas for affinity to flourish by adopting formal architectures of participation like chat rooms, forums, or groups. Each space had its own self-anointed royals who set their own rules, developing their taste for order or chaos, or a mix of both. Strong borders and hierarchical roles kept the peace and promoted coherence. There were rooms for dog lovers and for cat lovers, or for Star Wars fans but not Trekkies. In this digital diorama of an adult summer camp, a stable tyranny of structure and predictability took hold, and many groups flourished by convention.

Credit: Fernando Torres

But in the slipstream of the Twitterverse, the imposition of process over flow caused those structures to buckle under the real-time flux of Twitter, which drew people in with movement, energy, connection, and spontaneity. It was like a verbal dance party that demanded that you gyrate and sway with the crowd lest you get trampled under foot. As long as you bobbed and swayed in sync with the crowd, you had the chance — like anyone else — to groove to the center of the floor, bust out your signature move, and then swivel out, brimming with self-satisfaction at your clever contribution.

In the thrumming wavepool of tweets, swimmers clambered upon conversational inner tubes to find temporary reprieve. These floats were necessarily free for all, owned by none but usable by all — public barges on which to gather and shout and then sling from, on to the next.

That’s what gave Twitter its playful energy, right? The splashing throng and the free-for-all?

Metaphorically speaking, hashtags are linguistic inner tubes. Unlike conventional social networking architectures, the hashtag’s signifier is a typographic barnacle idempotently anchored to the underbelly of a lexical whale.

A linguistic stowaway, the hash prefix (#) is often verbally discarded, unlike the dollar sign. We read “$20” as “twenty dollars”, but we don’t necessarily read #blacklivesmatter or #metoo as hashtag black lives matter or hashtag me too.

When the dollar sign precedes a number, we instinctively desire what’s represented more than the naked numeral. Similarly, when a hash frontends a word or phrase, we perceive a pregnant bipolarity that could fizzle out unremarkably or spark a collective conflagration. The hashtag holds its gunpowder-potential as a quantum symbol of invitation, participation, or defiance. Only with culturally-attuned scrutiny might a reader tease out the intent of a hashtag’s progenitor and then — and only then — decide how — or if — to amplify or thwart that intention with a like, a rebuttal, a reshare, or by stirring into the pot one’s own 2¢.

It’s these unscripted, nondeterministic outcomes that lend hashtags so much utility. While currency symbols only identify pecuniary quantities, hashtags are infinitely suggestive. Inventive applications include humor (#WhyImSingle), nonverbal tics (#SMH), disclamation (#AutocorrectFail), ownership (#MyPetLizard), event identification(i.e., the wedding genre: #MorganHeBargainedFor, #BigFatHarryWedding, etc), and more.

In this way, perhaps the relationship between the hash and the tag is significant after all. Putting a dollar sign in front of a number doesn’t create money, but putting a hash in front of a tag can lead to any number of outcomes, especially in the digital milieu. These linguistic inner tubes provide buoyancy for conversations that for too long have percolated below the surface of the collective consciousness. And occasionally, a thousand voices cohere around a hashtag into a rising chorus to cut through the prattle: the sound of humanity’s tea kettle whistle shrieking, piercing torpidity with energy, light, awareness.

This is my contribution to Frode Hegland’s Future Of Text compilation, which includes contributions from many people from whom I have learned a great deal, including Vint Cerf, Anne-Laure Le Cunff, David Weinberger, Howard Rheingold, Doc Searls, Esther Dyson, fred benenson, Matt Mullenweg, and more.

It is available for free (free as in beer) in multiple formats here.



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Chris Messina

Chris Messina


Product Lead @ Republic. Inventor of the hashtag. Product therapist. Previously: Google, Uber, On Deck, YC W’18.