The American Dialect Society deemed "hashtag" the word of the year. NPR digital culture correspondent Laura Sydell and NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin explain how the social media tool works and why some get so popular.
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now, this week, the American Dialect Society announced its word of 2012, and the winner comes from Twitter. The word is hashtag. The symbol for a hashtag looks like the pound sign on your phone. Five years ago, Twitter introduced it as a way to organize tweets and sort through trends. Now, hashtags are everywhere. Movie trailers use them to promote the latest blockbuster, shirts and hats sport the hashtag #YOLO for you only live once. Hashtags even pop up in conversations with friends like hashtag #eyeroll.
And here's another example of how hashtags can be used. From our previous segment about weight loss, Audrey Pete tweeted about something Allison Aubrey just said on this program: Fit but fat. #thingsyouneverhearyourdocsay. So, Twitter users, tell us about the most successful hashtag you created or the best one you stumbled upon. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR's correspondent Laura Sydell joins us now from NPR San Francisco bureau. Laura, thanks for joining us.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SHAPIRO: Explain to the non-Twitter users out there what a hashtag is, please.
SYDELL: All right. well, basically as you said, it is - it's the number sign or the pound sign on your phone and you use that to sort of mark a conversation. So in a very, most basic way, I think this kind of started out where a group of people at an event wanted to say, have a private conversation that everybody - not private, i.e., the public can see it, but just know what each other were saying about something and they put say, you know, #conferencex2012...
SYDELL: ..for example. And then they would write their tweet. And so you would know by that sign in the front and you can quickly search it. You can see all the things people are saying at your event.
SHAPIRO: So when I was reporting on presidential debates during the campaign in the last year, each debate would have a designated hashtag, #debate2012, or whatever it was. And everybody wanting to follow the debate could just follow everything with that hashtag #debate2012.
SYDELL: Exactly. And before we came on today, I was asking some of my Twitter followers about hashtags and somebody was saying that, you know, when the election results were coming in, there was a hashtag - I think, it was, you know, #election2012. And they were able - they saw the results first on that. They saw, you know, they said it was also kind of fun to see snarky things people said but you could get this whole sense of what was going on around the country by following this hashtag on Twitter. So it's a great tool, right? So, to have a conversation.
SHAPIRO: That's level one, but then you get into a sort of more complicated layers of hashtag uses. It's been used commercially to promote anything and everything now.
SYDELL: That is absolutely true. So now, you pretty much don't have a television show that doesn't have hashtags. You know, you might have a show, for example, like "The Voice," right? And people who are fans of - and for people who don't know what "The Voice" is, it's basically a competition to see who has the greatest singing voice, and you might have...
SHAPIRO: Right. It's sort of an off-shoot of "American Idol", more or less.
SYDELL: Exactly. And, you know, they use it to grade effect, to sort of say, you know, tell us what you think of this voice. And it gets people engaged. I mean, television and Twitter is a big part of it; has become an interactive event where you are tweeting with your friends, tweeting with other viewers, and it's a great way to promote a show and to keep people engaged. You know, there's a hashtag maybe about the show that continues after the show's off the air. So you got your fans engaged even when the show's no longer on air. So it's great for advertising your show.
SHAPIRO: And yet, nobody is curating hashtags. Nobody is editing them and saying, oh, this one is in, this one is out, which can lead to some unexpected results.
SYDELL: Yes. As a matter of fact, Ari, I think one time, there was somebody - there was some sort of negative things being said about gay people. I think you went on the...
SHAPIRO: Yeah. So there was this hashtag, #SignsYoSonIsGay, which started out as anti-gay hashtag.
SYDELL: Mm-hmm. And then...
SHAPIRO: And then people started writing things, like hashtag #SignsYoSonIsGay, he's the brave and beloved chaplain of the New York City Fire Department who became the first official casualty of 9/11, or SignsYoSonIsGay, he invented the computer and won World War II by cracking the Nazi ciphers - referring, of course, to Alan Turing. People took over this hashtag and turned into something else.
SYDELL: Yeah. So it is completely open. And in that way, it's kind of an amazing dialogue. I mean, I think Twitter is up to 200 million users now, something like that. So you have millions and millions of people who are there who are joining in a conversation. You know, there's an interesting story about a program called "The Game," which was oriented towards African-Americans. And "The Game" is about the, you know, downtime for football - for a group of football players, professional football players and their wives. And "The Game" was taken off the CW in 2009. And there was, like, a ...
SHAPIRO: That TV network. Yeah.
SYDELL: Yeah. And there was revolt on Twitter. And BET picked it up, because they saw all these people on Twitter who were tweeting about "The Game" and using a hashtag. And so it actually brought it back on, helped publicize it. The show ended up being the most - the second-most watched show in the network's history. And when people watch "The Game," they, you know, used the hashtag, which just brings me to another point I want to make. You know, in many ways, there are distinct groups that hashtags often kind of elaborate and show.
For example, although I think African-Americans are about 12 percent of the population, 25 - around 25 percent of Twitter users are African-American. And there are a lot of conversations going on in distinct communities, like African-Americans, who will use hashtags in oftentimes urban use. They may not have a computer. They have a cell phone, and hashtags are a way to get a whole conversation going.
SHAPIRO: We want to hear from about the most successful hashtag you've ever created, or the best one you've stumbled upon. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to Katie in Edmond, Oklahoma. Hi, Katie.
KATIE: Hi. How are you doing?
SHAPIRO: Good. Tell us your story.
KATIE: Well, yesterday, my roommate and I were cooking some tofu for the first time, and it turned out pretty poorly. It was not good. So we tweeted (technical difficulties). And we said: Am I doing it wrong? And attached a picture of the tofu and hashtagged #tofu, and he ended favoriting it.
SHAPIRO: Oh, you tweeted Alton Brown, the Food Network celebrity - I don't know if you'd call him a chef. But he has a show on the Food Network.
KATIE: He's on "Iron Chef" and "Good Eats."
SHAPIRO: And so he favorited your hashtag, #tofu.
KATIE: Yup. It's a good way to be in contact with somebody I wouldn't normally have been in contact with.
SHAPIRO: Oh, sorry. Go ahead, Laura.
SYDELL: I just - did you find out what you did wrong as a result?
KATIE: No. He never let me know. (unintelligible) several things. It was not good.
SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Katie. And, Laura, this is another aspect of Twitter that is - can sort of bring total strangers in contact with massive celebrities or mid-level celebrities, as the case may be.
SYDELL: Exactly. You know, and I say as a journalist - and, Ari, I bet you do this, too. I mean, I have - I don't know something, like, 4,000 Twitter followers and I have Facebook friends, and I'll tweet something if I'm looking for a source on something. And, you know, it's great, because people respond and I have conversations with people who I don't know. So you can do that, as well.
SHAPIRO: We also have Andy Carvin on the line now. He is NPR senior strategist for social media, and he is an active Twitter user, to say the least...
ANDY CARVIN, BYLINE: Which to say the least.
SHAPIRO: ...with more than 150,000 tweets to his name. Joining us via Skype, Andy, thanks for being here.
CARVIN: Thanks, Ari. Good to be here.
SHAPIRO: You have sort of an interesting Twitter case study, as you have curated thousands of tweets about current events, whether it is breaking news in the context of school shootings or the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Describe how you've used hashtags to help cover those stories, and what you've observed.
CARVIN: Well, in many cases when news events are bubbling up somewhere, someone on the ground comes up with a hashtag. So, for example, when the Egyptian Revolution was being planned two years ago, they used the hashtag #Jan25 for the date January 25th. It was essentially an opportunity for people to RSVP online for the event. And so for the 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution, you could follow quite closely on the ground in Tahrir Square what was going on with people simply by monitoring the #Jan25 hashtag.
At other points in 2011, during the Arab Spring, I would often work with my Twitter followers to identify things that people were finding - like munitions, for example. So sometimes I would send out a picture of a landmine or some other type of munitions that have been founded in Syria or Libra, what have you, and then use the hashtag #IDthis. So people would often reply directly to me using my @acarvin Twitter account. But they didn't have to, because they could have conversations among themselves using the #IDthis hashtag. And doing that, we were actually able to identify the make, model and manufacturer of some of these munitions.
SHAPIRO: Wow. But, you know, Andy, I've tried using hashtags in the middle of breaking new situations, and I find so many people are tweeting things to the effect of what's going on with the hashtag of whatever the news event is, which is not especially helpful. How much chaff do you have to sort through to get to wheat?
CARVIN: Well, I think one of the problems is we have - it's - we have an abundance of people online so eager to use hashtags that, just as you said, that separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult. Especially, I've seen when a hashtag starts to trend on Twitter - in other words, it gets listed as one of the top hashtags of that particular moment - you start seeing spam sent to it. You start seeing news organizations pick up on it. For me, the sweet spot for hashtags is when they're just below the radar, so when people who are on the ground, at the location of a breaking news event have started using it among themselves.
But once you start seeing it being used by mainstream media or by celebrities, it often goes over this cliff where you're flooded with information. And so I always try to track down the hashtags early on, because there's diminishing returns on them over time.
SHAPIRO: Interesting. We have two bits of feedback from listeners that sort of show the enormous range of roles that hashtags can play. First a tweet from L.A. Pierce(ph), who writes: During the Egyptian revolution, I crashed TweetDeck by searching hashtag #egypt. That and hashtag #iranelection were most important to me.
And then, on perhaps the other end of the spectrum, Brett(ph) writes: My favorite thing about Twitter is the very active design artist community. One of my favorite hashtags is hashtag #omhg, which stands for oh, my handmade goodness, and it's a hashtag dedicated to helping the handmade community connect and grow.
SHAPIRO: So, Andy, I guess we got the two ends of the spectrum there.
CARVIN: Yeah. I'm glad they mentioned the Iran election hashtag, because that was one of the first that really demonstrated the geopolitical consequences of a hashtag, which sounds really strange saying that. But because Iran was shut off so quickly to the outside world as their - the protests spread all over the country back in 2009, following the Iran election hashtag was one of the few ways to see what videos and texts and other things people were circulating from the country.
So, for example, that famous awful video of Neda Soltan after she was shot in the head and as she was dying, that circulated worldwide thanks, in part, to the #iranelection hashtag.
SHAPIRO: That's Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist for our social media desk. Andy, thanks for being with us.
CARVIN: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's go to Alison(ph) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hi, Alison.
SHAPIRO: Tell us your story.
ALISON: Yeah. So I work for a national college ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and we had a large conference just over the holiday season. There were 16,000 students who came into St. Louis. And we used Twitter this year to really facilitate conversation throughout the conference.
SHAPIRO: And how did it work?
ALISON: It was great. So we used a hashtag called #U12. The conference was called Urbana, and so because it was 2012, it was #U12. And we started using that the day before the conference, so while students were traveling or tweeting about being excited to come. And it was hugely successful. So people used it throughout the whole conference. We had thousands of tweets that came in with the #U12 hashtag.
Our social media team - so we had a team of about 10 people who were tweeting all week long with our Urbana Twitter account. We, I think, tweeted around 3,000 times. And it was a five-day conference. So it was just amazing. We would see real-time responses from students of how they are reacting to certain speakers and talks and kind of what they were thinking, how they would apply the things that they were learning at the conference.
SHAPIRO: Great. Thanks for the call, Alison.
ALISON: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And, Laura Sydell, one use of the hashtag that is perhaps a little more sophisticated that we haven't discussed is the hashtag that only appears once, in all likelihood, as a comment on the thing that came immediately before it. So...
SYDELL: Yes, and I think this is sort of more or less pioneered by very creative people. For example, Rosanne Cash - several of my Twitter-user friends said - is one of the best at this. So, for example, just sort of in a quirky way, she'll write, it's raining - it's coming down cats and dogs: hashtag #professionalmeteorologist. So...
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Or there was an example in a New York Times magazine piece by Julia Turner, who wrote about Lena Dunham, who created the HBO show "Girls." Lena Dunham tweeted: What's my place in it all? Hashtag #questionsevenmymomcantanswer.
SYDELL: Right. It's not - you know, chances are, it's not going to take off big. In fact, what's fun about it is that it's a commentary and sort of metadata.
SYDELL: It's sort of saying, like, I'm going to be a non-big thing, so I'm going to use a hashtag.
SHAPIRO: Yes. Let's go to Deb in Boulder Colorado. Hi, Deb.
DEB: Hi, Ari. How are you?
SHAPIRO: Good, thanks. Tell us how you use the hashtag.
DEB: Oh, I am addicted to Instagram. And I've lived in some pretty obscure places in the world.
SHAPIRO: Instagram, of course, is a photo-sharing app on the iPhones. Yeah.
DEB: For photos. Uh-huh. Exactly. And so one night, I was thinking about different places I've lived, and I thought: I wonder if there are any pictures of this little village at the top of the Alps, Leysin, Switzerland. So I hashtagged #Leysin, and sure enough, all the pictures that have been taken of there and that people, you know, preface with their hashtag showed up. And so I got to see my village again. And then I thought, hmm. I wonder - I used to live in a deserted beach in West Africa, in Sierra Leone called Lakka Beach. So...
SHAPIRO: Sounds like you've had a really interesting life, Deb.
DEB: Yeah, I know.
DEB: And so I hashtagged #LakkaBeach, and sure enough, all these pictures showed up of Lakka Beach. And then I thought, I wonder if there are pictures from Bhutan. Oh, my gosh, pictures of Bhutan. Then I started to think about places where there's unrest right now, like Syria.
Yes, there are pictures of - from Syria. And it - wherever in the world you - well, let me back up and just say, so when I'm sleeping over night, all of these pictures are sort of pouring in from the world that I've selected that I want and the people that I want to follow. And then the first thing I do when I get up in the morning, I reach over for my iPhone and I look at these glorious pictures...
SHAPIRO: That's a great story, Deb. We're going to have to end on that note. But I appreciate your call. NPR correspondent Laura Sydell also joined us from the San Francisco bureau. Laura, great to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.
SYDELL: It was my pleasure.
SHAPIRO: And we spoke with Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist for the social media desk who joined us via Skype.
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SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.