Penkava: What is the big deal with all those #hashtags?

They came out of nowhere. One day we didn’t know they existed, and the next day they were all over us like the color white on rice. It’s as if they were sprinkled upon us like raindrops from the heavens.

They have landed in our televisions and our radios. They have settled onto our advertising signs and slipped into our storefronts. They have weaseled their way into our mail and our laptops. And now they have become a viral part of our vocabulary.

I guess you are wondering what I am talking about. Well, it doesn’t have to do with Area 51 and aliens. And although conspiracy theorists have warned us of the globalization of bacon, alas, these intruders have nothing to do with a pork cataclysm. Nope, we are talking about the invasion of a simple symbol called a “hashtag,” represented by the written character “#.”

In the olden days, this representation had innocent, unpretentious meanings. For example, “#1” simply meant “No. 1.”  “#” also denoted how many pounds something weighs, as in, “I weigh 175#, but 170# is pure muscle and the other 5# are clothes.” Another familiar usage of this symbol is regarding the push button on the bottom right-hand corner of a telephone’s dialing pad, which is called the “pound key.” I think they named it that because you have to endlessly pound on it to navigate through automated calls.

But now we have a new version of “#.” It’s not a number or a weight or a button. It’s so new that if you type the word “hashtag” on your computer, your spell-checker will try to correct it. So what is this new-fangled adaptation of the old # all about?

Evidently, to appreciate this little character, you need to be active on some kind of Internet social media. That means you need to be hooked up with Facebook or Twitter. So, for those who are tweetless and faceless, a hashtag has about as much meaning to us as a postage stamp would have to a person sporting a smartphone with unlimited texting.

But, to understand how the ubiquitous hashtag works, let’s say you go to your favorite social network site. Once there, if you want to search for something in particular and quickly find what people are saying on that subject, just use the “#” to preface your search topic.

In this way you create your own, personal hashtag and can just wait for the avalanche of responses. Just think of hashtagging as being the express lanes of social media. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you are really interested in knowing what everyone is saying about the new baby prince of England. All you do is type in something like “#babygeorge.” Suddenly you get a list of thousands and thousands of tweets about this captivating subject. Then you can spend the next several days reading and chatting and sharing all about the royal neonate. Pretty exciting, huh?

Want to try it? To get you started, here are a few other hashtags that I am sure would lead to fascinating and enlightening conversations:




I guess whether we like it or not, the new hashtagian convention is here to stay. Sure, you can continue to use them for numbers and weights and telephone navigation. But the way things are going, we will all have to get used to hearing a lot of #this and #that.

So fire up the Internet and join in on all the fun. All you have to do is just follow the hashtags to an exciting new world of interminably stimulating impersonal dialogue. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to see if #penkavaisgroovy is still trending.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He also recommends following #RIPhashtag to learn how the word “hashtag” has actually been banned by the French government. C’est terrible! Vive le hashtag! He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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