Twitter was launched in 2006 with few of the functions that it has today. Initially, users were invited to say what they were doing in 140 characters or less, and to follow friends (Burgess, 2014). One of the most significant technical affordances was a user-led innovation called the ‘hashtag’. The hashtag was initially seen as a means to coordinate conversations on the social platform.
The original idea for using hashtags in Twitter came from San Francisco based technologist Chris Messina in August 2007 (Bruns & Burgess, 2015).
Messina described his idea as a ‘rather messy proposal’ to allow people to follow and contribute to conversations on topics of interest. He proposed management and control measures for the tagged channels such as subscriptions, muting and blocking options, none of which eventuated as the hashtag phenomena took off (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). It was a turning point – people could gather on an ad hoc basis to exchange ideas and information without being a ‘follower’ of others in the group.
From humble beginnings, the hashtag has become a powerful tool to create ad hoc publics around issues and breaking news. The fact that users themselves, without top-down usage regulation, create hashtags has meant not only widespread community use but also adaption across multiple social networking sites.
The permutations of the hashtag are evident on Facebook and Instagram. Uses of the hashtag include the coordination of emergency relief (#qldfloods), Twitter ‘memes’ (#fomo, #thestruggleisreal), commentary on popular television programs (#MKR), and the coordination of ad hoc issues publics around political issues (#spill) (Bruns & Burgess, 2015).
Like Bruns & Burgess (2015), I contend that hashtags are more than simply ‘a search-based mechanism for collating all tweets sharing a specific textual attribute’. Hashtags connect people and create spaces to share information. However, they can also save lives through the public acceptance of a single source of accurate information in crises. In situations such as the Arab Springs, hashtags have lead to civil action.
The Twitter platform has the ability to respond quickly to emerging issues. In environments controlled by extensive top down management structures, issue publics may form some time after the fact. An example is online news, where stories are written, edited and published, commentary pages are set up and those who wish to contribute must ask to join the group. ‘Twitter’s user-generated system of hashtags condenses such processes to an instant, and it’s issue publics can form ad hoc, the moment they are needed’ (Bruns & Burgess, 2015).
A notable example of the power of a hashtag in a crisis is the use of #qldfloods by the Queensland Police during the 2011 emergency. The police, Brisbane City Council, the ABC, emergency services and tens of thousands of individuals used Twitter to warn or to help others. Information was delivered about road closures and to correct false rumours using #mythbuster.
‘The hashtag #qldfloods used on Twitter was spontaneously accepted as a primary source for information by public, police and emergency services’ (Bruns, 2015). He claims that Twitter users will often work to resolve conflicts in multiple or competing hashtags as soon as they have been identified. In the Queensland flood situation this was done by the authorities rather than the public but was still effective in unifying the conversation quickly.
Bruns (2015) states that users will actively work to keep their hashtag free of irrelevant information and to maximise the reach of the preferred hashtag over others. The use of #mythbuster helped keep #qldflood free of unwanted distractions.
During the flood crisis a small Queensland community was cut off and sent out calls for support via Twitter. The Premier reassured them via Twitter that aid was on its way. In another example of the power of the hashtag in this crisis, a call out was made to take animals from the RSPCA animal shelter where flood waters were rising to dangerous levels. So many people turned up that volunteers had to be turned away.
The impact of social media in managing this crisis was compared to the poorly handled Victorian bushfires. The level of cooperation amongst emergency services to get an accurate message to the public quickly via Twitter is something we are likely to see happen as a matter of course in the future. Using social networking sites will likely become an important part of crisis management pre-planning in government and other organisations. Using social channels as a way of listening and hearing from those in need is also likely to mature.
Boyd (2010, p3) contends that networked technologies reorgansie how information flows and the interaction between people. They amplify, record and spread information. The #illridewith hashtag enabled Australians, and soon after a worldwide audience, to band together to show their support for the Muslim population.
“#illridewith you hashtag goes viral”, (SMH, 16/12/14).
There was a story behind the hashtag that was emotional and had a strong call to action. It is an example of how organic content can be as powerful as professionally crafted seeding content.
Twitter analytics produced an interactive summary of the Twitter event. On 15 December 2014. At the peak of the event, there were 1.3 million tweets per minute using the hashtag #illridewithyou.
‘A drawback of the ad hoc and uncoordinated emergence of hashtags is that competing hashtags may emerge in different regions of the Twittersphere’ (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). An example of this in recent times is the use of #spill in June 2010. It was used for vastly different events taking place at a similar time: the BP oil spill in Mexico and the leadership challenge in Australia. Groups may compete to own or takeover the hashtag, and often alternative hashtags will appear (#spill2, #ruddroll) (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). Eventually Australian Twitter users took over the hashtag, posting messages to explain that #spill related to a leadership vacancy and not an oil spill. The Australian group drew considerably more commentators than the Mexico oil spill and alternative hashtags were not needed. The example shows how the Twitter community competes, but self regulates and operates, within its own protocols.
Twitter is a social channel with a special place in real-time commentary. Television watchers are no longer passive recipients of television broadcasting. Many television shows are legendary in their display of live Twitter feeds from at-home or studio audiences (#qanda, #MKR). The portability of the mobile device has enhanced the ability of people to engage with what they see and hear in real time. TV broadcasts are now much more to the audience than a one-way push of information.
It is hard to imagine that any dedicated political broadcast during the 2016 federal election will not have a Twitter feed displayed. In many ways this is a contributor to a truer public sphere, where audiences can engage with each other and possibly also with the politician, if the program formats allows.
During my post graduate study in public relations it has become apparent that newsrooms are changing. The hashtag is likely to play a significant role, alongside handles of major broadcasters. Increasingly, citizen reporters who are on the ground where the news is breaking, will report to the public through a news anchor. The humble hashtag will be used by people to alert news shows to the fact that they are available to report on what is happening right now. News editors are likely to spend time each day trawling through trending hashtags to find news – not just what appeals to them as an editor, but to what appeals to people. This is already apparent in shows such as Channel 10’s ‘The Project’ that has a mix of the serious news of the day and quirky stories that have appealed to social media users.
The scholarly study of hashtags on Twitter and other social channels in the future, will contribute to a growing body of knowledge about the changing ways people communicate. I would be particularly interested in reading about how the (not so humble) hashtag is contributing to the public sphere, particularly in the area of political communication.