Homage to the humble hashtag

Sometimes I dig the the evolution of language. But I'm old-fashioned at heart.

Two vertical lines, two horiontal lines. A humble hash. Up until the age of ten, this symbol meant the start of a game of noughts and crosses (or tic-tac-toe, or Xs & Os). As the phones in our house changed from rotary units to push-button ‘modern’ phones, the hash key was a useless appendix in the right lower corner of the keypad.

Now, it’s part of the daily web lexicon, even for those of us who don’t use hexcodes for colouring in. Mental. Hashtags are now rallying points, way markers and content filters for Twitter users. They’re like a firework going up to signify the start of a story for journalists. ‘Kony2012’ is meaningless, but #Kony2012 leads me into a new, interwoven world of current affairs controversy. The rallying point utility is interesting, because the hashtag started as a simple way of organising a group – Chris Messina being the first person (apparently) to stumble upon its utility.

The twitter world has taken something simple, quietly ubiquitous and extremely innocuous and turned it into a central navigation tool for sifting through the global glut of information. It’s worked brilliantly. Its simplicity is breathtaking. Any tweet can contain a word, and it’s an ephemeral nothing, a fart in the wind. But put ‘#‘ in front of it, and it becomes part of something much more tangible and permanent. It can #occupy a space in history.

Not all things shift so smoothly from old and innocuous to new and revolutionary. Not everything is as lean as the hashtag. As we discussed how we need to deliver news content to our professional clients yesterday at HQ, we got a little tied up in terminology. In the process of defining how we deliver content to professional clients, according to their varying needs, we’ve been assigning new definitions to old words, shoehorning brand new processes into old names we’re familiar with to help us sort and navigate. But things change so rapidly, we quickly find the old definitions restrictive and confusing. What’s a ‘channel’ in the new online context? Are we pushing ‘posts’ or ‘stories’ to clients, or will it be all one large stream of content filtered by tag, or several streams filtered by theme? How many different kinds of tags are there? Are tags topics?

None of this confusion is surprising, given that journalism has moved away from providing a finished product to allowing people see  a transparent process. Effectively we’re lifting the bonnet of the car for the first time and showing the world. Except, despite the fact that everyone knows how to drive it, but few have ever thought about how the machine really works, or what bits go with what names.

It’s likely that we’ll never get rid of all the ‘legacy terminology’, even though it might be best, philosophically, to just chuck it all out the damn window and redefine everything from scratch.  ITV have done a nice job of breaking the mould when it comes to presenting news. Their new site was created by Made by Many, and in one of two blog posts on the process, they describe the site brief as one which:

“…left behind the Gutenberg-era baggage of ‘pages’, ‘articles’ and ‘editions’ that most news websites haven’t been able to shake off, as well as reworking some proto-web typologies like ‘navigation’, ‘liveblogging’ and ‘galleries’.

Yup. That’s all good. It’s part of the evolution away from the story as a static, finished unit, away from the traditional structures of journalism to concentrate on the grain of current relevance, and how we present that, and pad it with context.

Ironically, it’s an old way of thinking too, albeit one that the public hasn’t been necessarily used to. Look at how the wires worked for editors & journalists for years. Not complete stories. Chunks of story. The alert first … mfl … the most recent chunk …. mfl …. then the next chunk …. mfl …. until eventually the story ran dry and someone assembled the ‘definitive version’. But we never presented it this way to the public, because it was awkward to filter, and the public were used to consuming their news in one big serving like a balanced meal. Until Twitter. Until news became a finger-lickin’, day-long buffet. But the filtering problem remained.

That’s why the humble hashtag is so impressive. It is the ultimate in organisational efficiency, a single non-linguistic, non-numeric character that has brought calm to the chaos. It will never be matched. For years it sat there on my phone. Dormant. Waiting. All around it, information exploded. The number of sources exploded. And then Twitter comes along, with its atomic deluge of real-time data, each one individually constrained by 140 characters but yearning for discipline, begging for the imposition of order so that it could belong to something with meaning.

‘This’, said the hashtag, ‘is my moment’.

One Comment

  1. In many ways it is the full realisation of tagging folksonomy. But where we focused before on adding 10 tags to a piece we have realised it just needs 1 tag, a hashtag. No more endless debates over how many tags and which tags, just an emergent “this is the 1 hashtag to use for this.”

    (Though I still get into arguments with people who put dates into hashtags…)

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