We're now a nation of Tweeters, Instagrammers and Facebookers, and many of us are quietly obsessed with digitally chronicling our lives.
With all this frantic online interaction comes a whole new vocabulary -- familiar words applied in strange new ways, as well as entirely new terms that didn't even exist a few years ago. We 'DM', we 'share', we 'like', we 'follow' -- and, of course, we 'hashtag'.
It's believed that Google's Chris Messina blazed the trail when he became the first person to use a hashtag back in 2007; his aim was to create a simple, practical way for people to find relevant groups or topics. Twitter caught on as the practise spread and began hyperlinking hashtags in 2009, before adding trending topics to its homepage a year later.
We're all familiar with hashtags and how they're supposed to work nowadays; whether in TV programmes, across billboards or dotted around the high street, they're literally everywhere. And there's no denying that they're a clever little invention, allowing brands to communicate directly with their customer base, and users to filter all the Twitter noise down to one specific interest. In fact, when we launched the 1in4 women campaign for Refuge here at Code, the hashtag played a key role in helping us track the effectiveness of the message as it made its way around the world.
But it seems to me that we're slowly losing grip of the original spirit behind them. The question is: are we all making a hash of the hashtag?
First, there's the ever-present issue of hashtag highjacking (also sometimes known as the 'bashtag') to consider. If you're not familiar, this is when you invite Twitter users to do one thing with the hashtag, but then the conversation devolves into something entirely different -- usually a torrent of abuse.
This seems to be a particular problem for big name brands. Waitrose learned the hard way when '#waitrosereasons' began attracting negative tweets that took a dig at the supermarket's upper-class associations (classic example: "I... shop at Waitrose because I was once in the Holloway Road branch and heard a dad say 'Put the papaya down, Orlando!'"), while McDonalds withdrew '#McDStories' after just two hours due to the unprecedented volume of hate-filled comments that came pouring in.
When you misguidedly open yourself up to a public forum like Twitter in this way, stuff like this is bound to happen, but that's not the only thing that can go horribly wrong -- rush in to starting a hashtag without double checking how it all runs together and you can prompt confusion, or, even worse, extreme mockery. The '#nowthatchersdead' hashtag that popped up following the former PM's death threw millions of oblivious Cher fans into despair. And then there's the unfortunate word combination that was used to promote Susan Boyle's album release party ('#susanalbumparty') -- doubt this one ultimately did much for her sales...
Tweets consisting solely of a ream of hashtagged phrases are becoming more and more common, too. And then there are those who consciously muck things up by creating their own personalised, super-long hashtags that no one in their right mind would ever search for -- annoying, hard to read, and, frankly, just not funny as you think.
It's got to the point where some people even pepper real-world conversation with hashtags. Will.i.am's latest album is called '#WILLPOWER'. The madness must stop.
The thing that made hashtags so special -- the fact that they're a people's medium, and are allowed to exist unmonitored and unfiltered -- is what's ultimately proving to be their downfall. It's Twitter users who invented the hashtag, but it's Twitter users who are corrupting it too.
So let's all make a vow to stop abusing the hashtag -- to think before we tweet -- and we can bring it back to its pure, simplistic and infinitely useful original form. Maybe someone could have a quiet word with Will.i.am, too, yeah?