Hashtags label and group all kinds of social media content – from TV shows like #QandA, to emergencies like #nswfires, or protests like #Occupy or #sosblakAustralia .
But when it comes to weddings, personalised hashtags don’t just group together tweets about the same topic, they also communicate a set of meanings and expectations about the event.
Where did hashtags come from?
Hashtags are thought of as emerging organically from Twitter – something the platform adopted after seeing in action.
But the hashtag can be traced to Chris Messina, who proposed using the hash symbol in 2007 to make a topic channel:
“Every time someone uses a channel tag to mark a status, not only do we know something specific about that status, but others can eavesdrop on the context of it and then join in the channel and contribute as well”.
By 2009, Twitter had formally implemented the hashtag by hyperlinking hashtagged tweets together.
According to social media researchers Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess, hashtags are a kind of folksonomy, a classification system derived from the most commonly used terms for a topic rather than imposed from the top down.
Hashtags to designate topics of conversation go back to Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a chat program that has been around since 1988. Popular IRC channels, designated with the # symbol as a prefix, include #Freenode, for open source projects, #Aniverse, for anime, and #PTNet, a local network for Portgual. Instagram introduced hashtags in early 2011, and Facebook incorporated them into the platform in mid-2013. They’ve become the main way that people publicise content outside their networks of friends and followers to people interested in particular topics.
Because weddings bring together otherwise disparate groups of people for one event, hashtags do the work of forming an instant, ephemeral group for them to connect.
Buzzfeed claim to have tracked down the first wedding hashtag: Jon Bohlinger from Minnesota in 2008 tweeted updates and pictures of his wedding with #BohWed.
Since then, they’ve taken off as yet another thing for a couple to think about as they suddenly become amateur event planners in the lead-up to the Big Day. By 2014, more than half of couples were using a hashtag for their wedding, and it’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
Hashtags organise social media posts, but they can also communicate attitudes towards the topic by how they are framed. While #MattandSusan2016 is a functional option, wedding hashtags can be incredibly creative.
You may need only look as far as your own Facebook feed for excellent examples, but some internet favourites include #wearePhamily for the Phams, #newPittsontheblock for the Pitts, #2haveand2holder for the Holders, #Swartzember for Mr and Mrs Swartz, who were married in September, and #wedlongandprosper to celebrate a marriage and a shared passion.
I eagerly anticipate a time when all Australians can get married, as we’ll no doubt see all kinds of creativity in the field of wedding hashtags emerge.
What does a wedding hashtag mean?
Taking and sharing photos at weddings isn’t new. In some ways, the hashtag is like inviting people to past their own photos of the day in your wedding album – or at least putting out disposable cameras on guests’ tables so they can take their own shots.
The wedding hashtag is now a way to gauge the couple’s attitude to the event before it begins. Does the hashtag seem romantic, whimsical, humorous? Does it use both surnames, just first names, a portmanteau?
How the hashtag is communicated lets the couple share expectations of the kinds of smartphone or social media activity from their guests. If it’s on the invitation or displayed somewhere on the day, it’s implicit permission to upload pics – after all, some couples actively discourage guests taking photos or having their phones out, and some even hate the whole hashtag idea altogether.
Weddings are a prime site of context collapse: what happens when people from different parts of someone’s life, like friends, family, and colleagues, are brought together. Although some of them know each other, many people at a wedding will never see each other again.
Paying attention to this in the form of a hashtag gives the people hosting a chance to add context to the images created on the day, as well as giving them back a sense of control over how these images are spread through the internet. #LisalovesLiam16 gives people at the wedding a shared online space in which to post and see photos without having to make more formal connections, such as following or friending one another.
Acknowledging the context collapse and shared nature of the hashtag means coming back to the shared experience of a wedding. The wedding hashtag marks a group coming together for a moment in time to celebrate a couple, and lets the couple capture, share, and revisit that moment on their terms.
Emily van der Nagel is writing a PhD on social media pseudonymity at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. You can follow her on Twitter at @emvdn.