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What is the #PURPOSE of a hashtag?

         I can no longer take pictures around my cousin, Debbie, without her cackling, “What IS the purpose of a picture, Mindy!?”  The question has become a sarcastic, family joke...well, at least for my husband, my cousin and many of my relatives who embarrassingly saw me melt down in Egypt several years ago. It was not a pretty scene. I hadn’t gotten the picture I’d hoped for while visiting the Pyramids.



       I’d excitedly handed my husband my camera for the shot I’d planned to become our annual Christmas newsletter photo-of-the-year. My family and I had ridden two hours in a bumpy, crowded bus from the coast to Cairo and had less than an hour to snap all the pictures we wanted of the pyramids. I was feeling extremely rushed but was hurriedly pushing my way through the crowds and the heat to capture all those “magic moments “. But when I saw that the locals were selling camel rides and offering THE most picturesque photo opportunity I could imagine, I knew this was the photo of a lifetime! Riding a camel in front of the pyramids in Egypt!!!???  It’s a Facebook junkie’s dream profile pic and was soon to become the money shot for our 2008 Christmas cards! But after negotiating a manageable fee, mounting the camel with my cousin, parading in front of the pyramids and smiling for five minutes non-stop, I was horrified to dismount and flip through my husband’s shots. Not a single shot of the camel!



      “What is the PURPOSE of a picture!?” I frustratingly yelled. To his credit, my husband thought I wanted him to take tight shots of me in front of the pyramid. He’d zoomed in on every shot so that you could easily see me sitting. And yes, you could see the pyramids. But you couldn’t see the camel. It was too late to try the whole scene again. We had to get back on the bus. I don’t know who felt worse. My husband or me. But my hissy fit has gone down in family history as definitely NOT one of my proudest moments.


         It can definitely be irritating when someone misses the point.  If I were a serious, social media die-hard, I’d probably get frustrated with the common misuse of the #hashtag too. I mean, we see it all the time.  I even do it myself! You know what I’m talking about. We see many posts like #PizzaWithExtraCheeseRocks or #SittingAtHomeWithSnoopy. It seems most of these sort of hashtags would be ideal content for a bumper sticker, a refrigerator magnet or a t-shirt slogan, but perhaps have no real purpose beyond making us giggle or roll our eyes.


             Yet, the hashtag was created for a reason…which means, yes, even “#” has a purpose! Contrary to common belief, the hashtag was actually not intended to be a punch line to a joke or a catchy phrase you randomly make up. Rather, “#” was designated in the early Twitter days (2007) to serve as a way to organize messages into meaningful groups. The very first hashtag was #barcamp. Go figure! But it caught on and has been helping classify information into manageable groups ever since. Conference attendees use hashtags to harness discussions, meet other attendees and share info. News organizations encourage viewers to use hashtags to follow breaking news events or share feedback. Twitter users may use a hashtag to organize or search specific subjects such as #blogging, #cooking, #running, etc.  In 2010, I used hastags quite a bit as a news reporter when trying to find info or details during breaking news event. Hashtags were particularly helpful for me during the Haiti earthquake as I tried to track down the latest news by following aid workers on the scene.



            While it can be frustrating that today there seems to be a lot of misuse to the common hashtag, I’m here to encourage you that there can be benefits to re-purposing too!  In doing research for this blog, I spent an afternoon polling my Facebook friends for feedback. I was shocked to learn there have been quite a few successful products invented that never served their original purpose. The eclectic list included Viagra, Lysol, and Super Glue. I was stumped when someone said Toothpaste and suggested it’s actually better for getting rid of pimples! I thought they were kidding until my colleague sitting next to me admitted she uses her toothpaste on her face for that reason and it really works! Perhaps my favorite was reading the background story on Silly Putty. I loved playing with the rubbery wad of mystery substance as a kid and would spread it out over my parent’s newspaper on Sunday mornings so I could get a funny print from the ink. Of course, like most kids, I’d then proceed to pull the Silly Putty in all directions just to make the faces look funny. But did you know that Silly Putty was actually created to serve as a rubber substitute during WWII? Back then, rubber was desperately needed in the war for truck tires, soldiers’ boots, gas masks and life rafts.  Unfortunately, there was a rubber shortage after the Japanese attacked many of the rubber-producing countries in Asia. In 1943, while attempting to discover a rubber substitute, an engineer named James Wright created what we now know as Silly Putty.  Although it never really was adequate for substituting real rubber, eventually the fascinating substance found its purpose in toy stores. What a cool story and a great lesson in Purpose. While we may think we know the purpose behind something, it may actually be better serving in another way.



            Yet, hashtags are unique in that they simultaneously do both! They serve their original purpose in helping organize information but have also evolved into a common tool for self expression. Which is better or worse? I’d argue they are both valid purposes and can be appreciated for the all the many functions they serve.


           Of course, I’d love it if my botched camel picture could have served a dual purpose too! I mean, it’d be great if it could be both a great story and my Christmas newsletter picture-of-the-year. But then again, maybe it did serve a dual purpose after all. It definitely became a good life lesson that we don’t need to freak out when something doesn’t work out quite like we'd planned. Everything eventually finds or serve a purpose, even those frustrating moments in life. But toothpaste on your face? Perhaps it's still better left for brushing teeth. ###

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