The half-life of the hashtag

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Stefano Bertolo points us to Rob Cottingham's latest Noise To Signal:

Rob's comment:

You know those time-lapse videos that compress days, weeks or years into minutes? The ones with flowers budding, blooming and then withering in seconds? Or late-1990s Silicon Valley startups getting venture capital, blowing it on espresso bathtubs and Dr. Pepper fountains, and vanishing into receivership?

I think Twitter may be the same thing, except for language. In spoken English, it can take decades – even centuries – for new words to emerge, become part of common parlance, and then fade into disuse.

But on Twitter, hashtags can live that entire lifecycle in the course of a day or two. A news story breaks, and competing hashtags vie for dominance. Then a few influential folks adopt the same one. Suddenly the conversation coalesces around it, the term trends, the spammers start using it, and then the conversation peters out as we move on to the next topic.

Is that the pattern? And how closely does it map onto the ways that words and phrases earworm their way into spoken language?

Maybe some up-and-coming linguistics student is already mapping the ways hashtags rise and decay, and getting ready to publish a dissertation… in 140-character increments.

Yet another opportunity for in silico social science

[And just in case you were wondering, this is not the first example of the construction "earworm its|their way into  __".]


  1. Stefano Bertolo said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    This seems to be a coordination problem à la Schelling Point. I understand that Robin Clark is working on such issues in linguistics.

  2. Martin Ball said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    Not being a twitter user, could someone explain what the heck this hashtag business is all about …..

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    On the latest round of snow-blends, see my Word Routes column and Arnold Zwicky's blog (Arnold calls them "snowmanteaus").

  4. Bill said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    Martin, let me google that for you: hashtag

  5. Martin Ball said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    @Bill: har-har, very amusing….

    As I tell my students a well-written piece doesn't assume the reader knows the background, especially of esoteric knowledge. I also tell them, they shouldn't expect readers to have to look up terms that could easily be explained in the text.
    C- I think….

  6. danny blooming said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:45 pm


  7. delagar said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Not to mock Martin, b/c I didn't know what hashtags were either, but I hadn't seen "Let me google that for you," and I gotta say — hee! That's the funny! Thanks, Bill!

  8. Zubon said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    "Well-written" comic strips need to define their terms? Do they need to explain the significance of the # as well?

  9. John Roth said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:23 pm


    Much to the bemusement, not to say chagrin, of surly old curmudgeons like me, the world changes. Ten years ago, I would have assumed that "look it up" was an insult to the state of my knowledge. Now I just assume that it means that the speaker assumes I'm either lazy or don't know how to use Google.

  10. Nick Lamb said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Martin Ball wrote: “As I tell my students a well-written piece doesn't assume the reader knows the background, especially of esoteric knowledge.”

    See, if I write this:

    Can we just sed the args out and grep it for uris?
    What caps for DK? /w me

    then I'm relying on esoteric knowledge. But if I have a perfectly normal conversation with you, and I drop in the word 'orphanage' then you should be able to resolve this as a noun pretty reliably, and (with maybe a clue how to spell it) you will know how to find out what one is and go off and form opinions about them without my help. Whether or not you use Google in this process is up to you. So why is 'hashtag' a special case where you pretend to be helpless?

    What subject do you call this dubious advice you're giving to students?

  11. Bryn LaFollette said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    Martin Ball wrote: “As I tell my students a well-written piece doesn't assume the reader knows the background, especially of esoteric knowledge.”

    I agree with Nick on this point.

    First of all, if a subject has already been discussed (as Twitter has been on Language Log) then it is already established as background with its readers. If someone comes into the middle of an ongoing conversation and isn't familiar with the subject being discussed, asking questions would be totally acceptable to bring them up to speed. But, accusing the others of being lousy conversationalists since they didn't provide the "background" to understand what they were talking about would not be.

    Second, claiming some subject like Twitter is "esoteric" when it has over 75 million users seems more like curmudgeonliness than anything else. Is it acceptable to make a joke or write a paper about usage of e-mail without explaining how it works? Do sports writers need to assume their audience doesn't understand the rules of whatever game they're writing about? Rather than trumpeting about how some essay is barely passing ("C-") because you don't personally know anything about the central subject being assumed as common ground, maybe you should try laying on a little less hubris and instead educate yourself.

  12. Jake T said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    'let me google it for you' discussions aside, what I really want to know is the answer to this question in the original aritcle:

    [H]ow closely does [twitter] map onto the ways that words and phrases earworm their way into spoken language?

    Please tell me someone at LL Plaza has already been assigned this article ;)

  13. Aengus said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Maybe some up-and-coming linguistics student is already mapping the ways hashtags rise and decay

    I'm on it!

  14. Rob Cottingham said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    Can I appeal the grade, on the grounds that my readers are typically well-versed in the social web, including Twitter? To them, "hashtag" isn't an esoteric term – it's part of their daily vocabulary.

    Not to be presumptuous, but a B- would allow me to maintain my virtual GPA…

    (And Mark and Stefano, thanks so much for sharing the cartoon with your readers!)

  15. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    I don't care how many million users Twitter has. It's a foreign language to me and one I can't be bothered learning, even if it does mean I miss the point of Twitter jokes. Call me old-fashioned . . .
    We LL readers sometimes have to skip posts. Chinese, statistical analysis, Twitter: if something's over my head I skip it and pass on to the next thing.
    At the moment I happen to be reading Osbert Sitwell’s autobiography, which is full of quite old-fashioned English. Can you visualize the following vehicles, all mentioned in the same sentence. The period is c. 1903:

    'Gone already from the scene were chariots (known on the Continent, where they survived for cabs, as "Mi-Lords"), gone were the pilentum, the britzska, the Clarence (ancestor of the surviving, trundling "growler"), the phaeton (demi-mail, spider and Beaufort), the dioropha and the barouche; but broughams, landaus, coaches, waggonettes (Portland and Lonsdale), drags, victorias and sociables, with imitation cane-work on their panels, all these could still be seen turning out of the endless residential quarters and heading for Hyde Park.'

    I remember going for a ride in a phaeton (or 'fayton', as it was called) in Büyükada in Turkey, but I don't know which sort it was.

  16. Jim F said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    I know little to nothing about Twitter and got a bit confused about the "hashtag" name. I thought it had something to do with hashing (in the computer science sense) and couldn't figure out why it would be named that. But it turns out that the "#" symbol is the "hash" in British English. (Perhaps it's even a pun?)

    On a more substantive point, wouldn't you want your tags to be as common and straightforward as possible if the point is to function as a search/lookup tool? Creativity would appear to undermine the whole thing. Also, I thought the point of Twitter was to follow someone's musings in real time. If you're going to be producing so much on so many different topics that cataloging is appropriate, wouldn't a different medium serve you better?

  17. Will said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    Like Jake T, I'm also interested in how the evolution of spoken language compares to that of Twitterese (BTW, I thought I just coined this latter word, but a search gives 18kghits; "Twittish" and "Twitterish" are also attested with this meaning, but since these both have original different
    meanings it's not as easy to say how often they are used with the Twitter meaning).

    I'd have to think the modes of evolution are fairly dissimilar, since geography is a very potent force in spoken Language evolution, and geography barely exists in the Twitterscape (19kghits). But I'm just speculating here, with no evidence. I don't even have a Twitter account (but I do fully understand hashtags–besides being a component of pop culture references, their usage has expanded beyond Twitter and penetrated the blog-o-sphere in general; many blogs now use hashtags to denote tags or categories).

  18. Dan T. said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    The spread of hashtags to other places besides Twitter was most likely initially encouraged by the fact that lots of people have interlinked multiple sites so that when they post an update to one of them it gets reposted elsewhere; their Twitter updates might go onto Friendfeed to get relayed on from there to Facebook and Plaxo; their new blog postings go into an RSS feed that gets automatically tweeted. The result is that when they include hashtags in their writing to cater to Twitter, they turn up in the other places as well, and then other users there (even those who aren't on Twitter) might start emulating that usage.

  19. Mark F said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    I have another twitter-related question. Some people preface a previous commenter's name with @ to indicate the intended focal recipient of a response. Does this have any operational significance? Does it cause any software to process the comment differently? Or is it just a visual convention?

    In other words, is there a difference between

    Mark F – That's the dumbest comment ever


    @Mark F – That's the dumbest comment ever?

  20. Jess said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    I think the cartoonists were really missing a trick when they used '#snurricane' instead of '#flurrycane'.

  21. Nanani said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    @MarkF, off-twitter it is simply visual, but on Twitter it does turn the recipient's name into a link, and any user can check their @s to see a page of tweets addressed to them.

    Also has a certain privacy function, when private tweeting is enabled. A third user can only see an @tagged message if both the sender and recipient are already among their allowed followers

    It makes more sense if you just try it out yourself.

  22. Colin said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

    To me it seems like this is mostly a more public form of something speakers do all the time: invent words. I know myself and people in my social circle do it all the time, and a lot of times they're not particularly good or useful. Sometimes though, somebody somewhere comes up with a new portmanteau or something that's funny or catchy and it spreads through mutual friends (six degrees of separation?) until suddenly it seems like everyone is saying it. Twitter just closes the gap even further by being both global and near-instantaneous.

  23. Brett said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    The use of "@" to direct comments specifically to a previous poster certainly predates Twitter. It may have had a technical function in some previous software system, although I am not aware of any.

  24. Nathan Myers said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    Jim F.: …wouldn't a different medium serve you better?

    Yes, in all generality. No precondition needed.

  25. Lugubert said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    This was my very first encounter with "hashtags". It seems that I'm not alone in that position. Google's result of a million plus hits isn't too helpful. For such a novel concept, a link to an explanation that doesn't assume you're younger than 20 would have been useful.

  26. Bill S. said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    The lexical burst-and-fade cycle on Twitter is neither linguistically surprising nor a new phenomenon — it's just something most of us don't normally see in such a public forum. Adolescents use neologisms as group-defining "fad" items all the time (of course, most Twitter users probably aren't adolescents; the point I'm trying to make is simply that this stuff is not that weird).

    From a language-change standpoint, Twitter is, basically, middle-school writ large. And yes, senators are using it too — but that might just support the analogy, rather than weakening it.

  27. db48x said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    The funny thing is that hashtags have been around for at least 20 years. The Internet Relay Chat protocol, which was long the most popular way to chat online, uses channel names that begin with #. Since any given IRC message is directed either to an individual user or to a channel, and since joining a channel effectively filters the stream of messages to only those directed to that channel, the channel name functions identically to the hashtag on twitter. IRC even has a relatively short maximum message length…

  28. Army1987 said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 7:22 am

    @ comes from the Latin preposition "ad", which, among other uses, introduces the recipient of a message (as in Epistulae morales ad Lucilium), so it makes perfect sense.

  29. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    To everybody who provided explication of Twitterese, including hashtag, and even the (#) hash mark itself. As someone said at the beginning, don't assume everyone knows the same esoteric concepts, terms, etc. that you do. This was an interesting post and thread of commentary once I understood the language. Until the terms were explained, it came across with a 'we few, we happy few' tone that was most uncomfortable to the uninitiated. And besides, if you didn't know # is called a hash mark (or forgot), how could you look it up? I ask as a librarian, used to looking up stuff.

  30. Zubon said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    I'm confused about the search problem some are having. "Hashtag" is in the title of the post and in the comic provided. Bill has already demonstrated how to Google from that to an explanation. I don't see how "Google's result of a million plus hits isn't too helpful" when the first page of results includes Wikipedia and "Twitter Support: What are hashtags (the "#" symbol)?" And I'm well over 20.

    A librarian claims to have been baffled by this search. Can anyone who has had trouble finding out what a hashtag is explain where things went awry?

  31. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    I found hashtag. I didn't know where it originated, nor that it came from #, because I have used other terms for the symbol than hash. To me hash refers to a dish made from left-over meat and potatoes, or a drug of choice among street-dwelling lowlifes, and the context described above left me flummoxed. And if you don't know what a term is ( such as #), how can you look it up?
    I saw the Google references, but they did not indicate where the term came from (as the OED does). Anyway, I was confused.
    Thanks for clearing it up, I think.

  32. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    One final note, and this obtuse librarian will get out of the way. The first entry in a Google search on the term hashtag is incomprehensible after the first sentence. So if this is intended to clarify this topic, it fails. I still have not seen what the function of the # is in #hashtag? Must one have tweeted to understand this? And is not this an effort to provide a new single word to replace portmanteau word? And finally, the cartoon seems to suggest that a term that erupted out of Twitter has to have the same half-life as the average tweet thread. Sorry, I like both snowpocalypse and snowmageddon. Don't want to see them melt with the snow.

    [(myl) Before the hashtags, there was the "tag", defined by wikipedia as

    a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information (such as an internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file). This kind of metadata helps describe an item and allows it to be found again by browsing or searching.

    Then it occurred to someone that you could mark ordinary words in running text as "tags" in this sense, by prefixing them with a symbol unlikely to be used for other things in the normal course of textual events, such as the hash mark '#'. So if I thought that this whole discussion was especially relevant to searches for the keyword "symbol", I could have expressed the wikipedia quote as "… prefixing them with a #symbol unlikely to be used for other things …".

    Thus was born the #hashtag.

    As for the dynamics of #hashtag frequency on twitter, our opinions and preferences don't matter — it is, as they say, what it is. But you don't need to adjust your own use of the associated words accordingly (or, for that matter, your own of the hashtags should you decide to indulge in them). It's a free country. ]

  33. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    Thanks, I was simply explaining to Zubon and others the source of my confusion, since he asked. I like tags, use them in a variety of resources, including one version of the library catalog. I couldn't pass up the "look it up" and "I'll Google it for you" references.

  34. Simon Spero said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    Coming late to the party, but there has been some work on tag convergence over time.
    For example, Terrell Russell at UNC has been looking at this for a while – see (abstract of poster from ACM/IEEE JCDL 2006 cloudalicious: folksonomy over time

    And more helpfully (and openly-accessabe) the actual poster from ASIS&T 2007
    Tag Decay – a view into aging folksonomies

  35. Daniele said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    To those interested in Twitter and language change: I'm a Masters student at the Sorbonne in Paris, working on a couple of project related to this.

    They're still in the midst of taking shape, but I'll be blogging about them here:

    (So far this is more in note-form than proper posts – I just thought I'd better jump in now while this topic is still hot!)

    Always eager to hear from people working on similar things, too!

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