Elon Musk’s Twitter has even lost the man who popularized #hashtags

The man who popularized the use of the "@" symbol on Twitter says he no longer uses the site.

Elon Musk’s Twitter has even lost the man who popularized #hashtags

Chris Messina has created a monster, it can be argued.

In 2007, Messina suggested that hashtags be used to group tweets about the same event or theme. These tweets can be found easily by Twitter users who are interested in the topic.

Paulina Prizkova's approach to Instagram

Like other monsters the hashtag did not behave as Messina had intended. It changed, entered our language and, in some cases, even our bodies. Twitter, too, has changed. So much so, in fact, that Messina announced this week that he was quitting Twitter after his verification badge vanished. Messina wrote that "whatever Twitter was prior deserved more dignity, consideration and respect than it has received in the past six months."

Twitter, once a utopian company, is now a troubled business whose new owner Elon Musk has expressed his dislike for the hashtag. The eight-pointed slanted rectangle is about to be a thing of the past. Does it have a too strong personality to be subdued so easily?

Messina did not invent the hashtag (also known as the pound sign or octothorp). The hashtag was originally used as a way to indicate a number and has been used in computer codes since the 1980s. It had also been used on Internet Relay Chat, an early instant messaging service, to label topics and groups.

The symbol was not immediately popular with Twitter's executives and other employees. They didn't love the look of it and thought that it could be irritating, breaking up sentences and making them difficult to read.

The trend spread slowly, but Twitter officially adopted it in 2009. They placed the hashtags prominently in places where users can easily spot them and follow them. The monster was getting stronger.

Twitter hashtags have been able to transcend the original functionality they were assigned in just a few short years. In the 2010s, hashtags were used in ways that their creators never imagined. Users would use them to emphasize a point, to attract followers, or to create a certain brand of ironic humor. ("I'm joking #notjoking.")

This got people riled up. Sam Biddle, in a 2011 article on Gizmodo, argued rhetorically: "Why write something enthusiastically when you can lazy throw in #excited?" Why not say "I miss you" instead of #missingyou. Why not just say something instead of putting a sentence through a kaleidoscope formatted horse shit? Speak up. "The bar has been set so low that I don't need to apply a hashtag retroactively to understand what you are saying."

The worst was yet to come. The symbol, like a virus that has crossed species barriers, left the screen and became part of the verbal language. Tint noted in 2015 that the "hashtag", which was once a written term, was now often spoken. It was no longer a "paralanguage", like a wink or a shrug, but a spoken language. Has there been any study to see how many people tattoo #hashtags on their body? #Researchopportunity.

The hashtag has gone viral in a way that no other #hashtag ever did. Instagram and LinkedIn began using it as a topic after Twitter. Facebook adopted it after users started using it. Hashtags are everywhere, just as the URL symbol denotes email addresses or www is a website.

Will it be the same in all of these cases? It is almost certainly not.

In a TED Talk in 2019, Messina stated that 200 million hashtags are used on Twitter every day. Isn't it guaranteed to survive?

Elon Musk, in March 2023 tweeted "I don't like hashtags" as a possibly-flippant comment that was read by over five million people. Musk, who has been running the company since 2010, has made a number of changes and fired or overseen the departures of many of the most influential executives and staffers. Twitter hinted that it may want to get rid of hashtags even before Musk. However, it did not make the decision to do so.

Even if Twitter decides to stop using the symbol in its official communications, it is unlikely that the hashtag will disappear from the Internet. Stranger things have happened. As a topic that was once popular has faded from the public discourse, you are less likely to hear this word. Tattoos are becoming more retro. Perhaps it will disappear in the same manner from our written communications.

It doesn't take a lot to see a change in language, whether written or verbal, and our online habits. After the internet, it's not hard to imagine linguists in the future examining a few pieces of paper with an alphabet mixed with cross-hatchings like mini-tic-tac toe boards and wondering what we were trying communicate.