The hashtag is a type of meta data tag that allows users to find specific themes or topics online. It connects people. And, when Chris Messina presented it to Twitter co-founders in 2007, that is exactly what he hoped his creation would do.
Today, the hashtag is part of the very DNA of the internet, and has become a powerful tool for galvanising people for both good and bad.
As many as 200 million of these meta data tags are used everyday, which is the equivalent of 2,300 a second, and only a handful of social media platforms do not support them.
While Messina achieved his goal of connecting people, he says now he cannot “look back without some concern about the impact that social technologies are having on us”.
Hashtags, he says, have changed people’s online behaviour dramatically over the past ten years, and have “caused different types of uprisings, from the Arab Spring protests to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements”.
He adds: “Of course, it isn’t that the hashtag caused these things to happen, but it provided a vehicle as a means for people to bring conversations together.”
Messina believes the problems with social technologies “arise in the way in which we have translated complex human behaviour and interaction into their digital equivalents.
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In the race to connect everyone, he explains, communication has become more accessible, but it has also been cheapened. “Connection was a worthy goal, but it turns out connection alone is not sufficient,” he concedes. “What we actually need is technology that supports both comfort and security.”
Digital addiction, mental health issues, the ability to know what is truth what is not, polarisation, political manipulation and superficiality are just some of the effects social media technologies are causing he said.
“We’re really only just starting to come to grips with the depth of these problems, and that too much social media is bad for us,” he adds. “We see now it can have a negative impact our emotions, physical health and interpersonal relationships.
“It’s breaking the fabric of society and yet the goal was to bring people together. It’s interesting that the people who were there at the beginning are starting to come to the realisation of the negative outcomes that their products have produced.”
Some platforms are already making incremental changes to their sites in an effort to combat some of these negative impacts. For example, WhatsApp now restricts the number of times a message can be forwarded so as to stop the spread of misinformation, which can have catastrophic outcomes.
Instagram launched its “create don’t hate” sticker in a bid to discourage bullying on the platform. Twitter and Telegram have made modifications to allow their users to reduce the number of notifications they receive.
“Regulations might change the way that these companies work but, ultimately, the impact that these technologies are having on us is an environmental challenge.
“So these are good places to start the conversation, but it’s my sense that we really want to go deeper because the real source of the problem lies in founder culture.”
The sort of moral bankruptcy that has been displayed by some social media founders and executives is what needs to be addressed, according to Messina.
“As a founder myself, I know that building a company is one way to make a change,” he explains. “But to scale this change, we have to change the culture that surrounds founders.
“I was there 15 years ago when a lot of the decisions were being made. I have a sense of how the culture we were in affected the outcomes we are living with today. I can, thanks to the hashtag, see what kind of downstream consequences there are to the little minute decisions that founders make in the products they produce.
“The founders’ culture often informs the principles and values and decisions they will make. Those values will then inform their product design choices – should the ‘like’ button do this or that? Should we tell the person we are spying on them or not? Should the logo be bigger?”
It is these designs, he says, which influence the final product that ends up out in the world. Over time, these products affect users’ behaviour and that, ultimately, effects mass culture. “We shape our tools and our tools shape us,” he added.
“I do not blame the technology for this, it’s just an amplifier. The problem comes from the culture that produced it. If you change the culture of founders you can change the nature of social technology products.”
Messina, however, remains hopeful that the situation can be remedied, noting that there is a new up and coming breed of entrepreneurs and founders emerging, who are emotionally intelligent and committed to emotional wellness.
If new social technology products can be successfully aligned to this type of founder culture it will help us to build better platform. “We need to be investing in the whole wellness of humans rather than just getting users on a platform,” he says.
“To make real change, we need to get better in our relationship with ourselves and better in our relationship with our technology.”