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October 15, 2014


Alum’s Idea Now A Cultural Icon

The hashtag.

Love it or loathe it, the little pound sign is preceding words and phrases everywhere.

By turning any words that directly follow it into a clickable link, hashtags initially made it possible for Twitter users to organize content, track discussions and easily follow topics of interest.

hashtag tweetSince then, the hashtag has exploded. People are using it to advertise, carry out social movements around the world and frequently convey humor. Its popularity once prompted late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon to parody its use — and misuse — for laughs in a sketch with singer Justin Timberlake.

“I thought that sketch was awesome,” said hashtag creator Chris 
Messina, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication design from Carnegie Mellon in 2003. “Here are these Hollywood types making fun of an idea some geek had in Silicon Valley. It just shows how much cultural relevancy us geeks now wield in the world.”

Looking back on the trajectory the hashtag has taken — from organizational tool to cultural icon — Messina says the uses we see today echo its very first uses, just on a much broader and widespread level.

“The tongue-in-cheek usage 
developed over time, but the relevance to spreading news was there from the outset,” he said.

Messina argues one of the most important aspects of the hashtag is that it can be used both humorously and for purposes where life and death are concerned, such as when a child goes missing.

“It means the hashtag can’t be owned or tamed by anyone. It is an artifact of digital communication that needed to exist, and now it does,” he said.

Messina also feels the life that the hashtag has taken on is a reflection of our increasing dependence on digital media and mobile devices.

“It’s really something of the post-PC era. When you no longer have a keyboard to type out sentences, everything is about brevity and efficiency. And the hashtag is, quite frankly, about as condensed as you can get,” he said.

Nonetheless, Messina still admits to be taken aback when he sees a hashtag where he wouldn’t have thought of putting one.

“I wouldn’t have expected the hashtag to show up on taxi cabs, billboards or album artwork,” Messina said. “A lot of people complained it was ugly, but now it connotes hipness and modernism.”

By Kelly Saavedra