I was doing a Skype video call with my mom, and I started to complain that my Macbook Air sometimes pinches my skin if I open it on my lap. My patient mother waited until I’d finished whining about my technology-induced wounds, and then told me she had a response.
“Hashtag: first world problems,” she said with a smile.
That was the moment I knew hashtags were here to stay.
What my mom had incorporated into our video chat was a verbal reincarnation of the #firstworldproblems hashtag, a web meme that’s gotten so big that people now use it in daily conversation. Although literally saying it isn’t the most common way to use a hashtag, my mom’s usage is a great example of how powerful hashtags have become.
A quick review: Hashtags are words or phrases preceded by a hashmark (#), and they’re used to identify a piece of information—a tweet, an Instagram photo, a pin, a blog post—with a larger theme or topic. They gained mass popularity thanks to Twitter (the microblogging service started hyperlinking all hashtags on July 1, 2009), but hashtags are now used all over the web, even in places where they don’t seem to belong.
The most common usage of a hashtag is to categorize a piece of information with others like it, but this plays out in a few different ways. Read on for an overview of how the tiny tic-tac-toe board has taken over social media.
Live tweeting events has become an American pastime, and now it’s easy to follow along with any event from the comfort of your own home. This is due in large part to the popularity of event-specific hashtags used to easily group all tweets related to a particular occasion. You can follow along with anything from the latest episode of #Glee to the #DNC2012 national convention.
Event hashtags are powerful tools. In her February 2012 talk at the Future of Media Conference, Twitter’s VP of Media Chloe Sladden indicated that adding a hashtag on the screen during a TV show could increase the volume of Twitter conversation about the show up to 10 times.
So, if Twitter lets you search any term, why do you even need hashtags? Because they can help call out when a word or phrase is particularly relevant to others. The hashtag lets people search for the #TED conference or the #Jets football game without reading about your uncle Theodore or the latest news about airplanes.
One tip: If you’re prone to feeling left out, be careful—following conference hashtags can give you FOMO.
Similar to events, breaking news stories often get their own hashtags. The October 2007 #SanDiegoFire was one of the first prominent uses of a hashtag to disseminate breaking news, but the Arab Spring uprisings in places like #TahrirSquare showed the world the real power of a hashtag.
When it comes to breaking news, sometimes searching the hashtags on user-generated content can give you better information than major media outlets. I’ll admit that I followed Hurricane #Sandy updates on Instagram to see what kind of damage had been done to my neighborhood and the cities around it.
Games and Memes
Hashtags have the uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re part of something bigger. When trending hashtags take off on Twitter and other social platforms, it’s hard not to want to join in on the fun. Widespread hashtag memes have certainly gained popularity with the “weeklies” like #FollowFriday (listing other Twitter users that you like to follow) and #ThrowbackThursday (sharing old photos or blog posts). And everyone loves being part of something bigger (like #fromwhereirun) or playing a fun game (like #lessinterestingbooks, #IndieMusicMovies, or #natesilverfacts).
My favorite hashtag memes are the ones you can use to make fun of yourself (or other people). #firstworldproblems is a useful way to say “This complaint is trivial, but I want to share it with you even though I fully appreciate how lucky I am to have this problem at all.” Similarly, the hashtag #humblebrag has become a cultural shorthand for “I’m pretending to be humble, but really I’m bragging.” The popularity of #humblebrag has even spawned the new hashtag #bragbrag, for when you really just want to do some good, old-fashioned boasting.
You know those long hashtags that are almost their own sentence? The ones that seem excessive and somewhat ridiculous because no one else is using them? Those are absolutely my favorite kind of hashtags.
The rise of ironic metadata hashtags is as close as the world of hashtags comes to creative expression. Using them is ironic because you don’t realistically expect anyone to click on it or to find your post by searching for that term. Including an ironic hashtag doesn’t necessarily group your conversation with others like it, but it’s a fun and clever way to tell your readers, “I know that you know how a hashtag is supposed to work, and we both know this is an absurd way to use it.” Its very usage creates the inside joke that everyone can appreciate.
Hashtag abuse is an ugly thing, so I encourage everyone to use good judgment. Too many hashtags in one tweet or post make your message hard to read and can look spammy. But the beauty of the (appropriately used) hashtag is that it can bring us together, gathered around a communal topic to publish information or tell stories with a common vernacular. Hashtags allow us to develop inside jokes, and then share them with millions of people in a way that lets us all feel like we’re on the inside. Because of hashtags, we can consume media with an added layer of understanding, and then say #iseewhatyoudidthere.