Conversing With Society, Conversing With Ourselves: The History Of Hashtags, Memes, And Selfies

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In late 2017, dethroned pop culture queen Paris Hilton shared a tweet with the world which claimed she and Britney Spears invented the “selfie” back in 2006.

The internet clapback was quick, as it often is. Twitter users flooded Hilton’s replies with reasons she was sorely incorrect, using examples of selfies ranging from Madonna in a 1995 film to Harold Cazneaux in early-20th century Austria.

But like all good social media statements do, Hilton’s tweet launched a profound debate over who can claim ownership of the first selfie—and what we consider a selfie in the first place. What about the polaroid selfie taken by the title characters of Thelma & Louise? Or even the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh, and other art luminaries?

“Thelma & Louise” (1991)/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (via Vulture)

Such a debate opens up discussion of other pillars of the internet age, as well, such as the genesis, and importance, of the hashtag and the meme. As silly as things like Arthurs Fist and Left Shark may seem, these lovable viral images say a lot about how humanity communicates with itself—and always has.

The Hashtag in Historical Context

Before the internet age, “#” was simply shorthand for “number” or was known as “the pound sign” on your touch-tone telephone. But all that would change in 2007—right around the same time the Hilton-Spears friendship would send Britney to a dark, bald place.

On Aug. 23, 2007, a tech worker named Chris Messina suggested using the hash symbol to denote groups in a tweet: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Messina, interestingly enough, did not work for Twitter. He was merely “an early user and a fan” when he made the suggestion, he later wrote—in fact, he still refers to himself as a “Twitterer” on his personal website.

According to a proposal Messina wrote a few days after tweeting his suggestion, he didn’t actually want the hashtag to create groups, but he did think that there was value in exploring ways to improve “contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter.” Or, as Messina himself stated it more succinctly: “I’m more interested in simply having a better eavesdropping experience on Twitter.” The hashtag certainly delivers on that point—and more.

Today, the hashtag connects people with events, causes, and conversations. It has become a useful tool for companies as well, aiding them in their constant search for customers.

Harry Hugo, a digital marketing entrepreneur and co-founder of Goat marketing company, believes hashtags are the 21st century’s version of a classic advertising device: the tagline. “Where a brand would use a short line to summarize a campaign message, they now use a hashtag, tracking all communication across social [media] that uses it. We have always used these tags, just perhaps in a less trackable or permanent way.”

The hashtag isn’t just a modern, trackable tagline, either. In a broader sense, it is a manifestation of the age-old desire to connect and belong. They “unify conversations,” says Regina Luttrell, PhD, an assistant professor of public relations at Syracuse University and author of the book Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect.

In Luttrell’s book, she interviewed David Weinberger, an author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which was an early examination of the internet’s impact on marketing. He told Luttrell that, “We thought it was obvious to the people on the Web that we were there because we finally got to talk about what mattered to us with the people we wanted to walk with.”

Just in the way the printing press and the telegraph helped like-minded people come together, so has the hashtag. From topics ranging from dramatic social causes like #BlackLivesMatter to inspiring charitable movements like the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, the hashtag helps individuals feel a kinship with others from around the globe.

But what do you meme?

The evolution of the hashtag is odd, but if there is one thing that the internet excels at it, it’s the elevation of the bizarre. Take for example the routine practice of turning ordinary people into worldwide sensations for the cubicle amusement of millions. Meme making.

“Alex From Target,” whose likeness was duplicated ad nauseam after a Target shopper tweeted a picture of him captioned “YOOOOOOOOOO” (via J-14)

As for the meaning of meme, Luttrell prefers to rely on the Oxford English Dictionary‘s second definition, which speaks to memes in their modern sense: “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.”

The dictionary’s first definition, though, refers to memes more generally: “An element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” This context of the word was first used by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He wrote that memes are “discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on …”.

While memes can range from charming to absurd, they usually find success because they can be exchanged and shared, which is part of the reason Luttrell refers to memes as “social currency.”


But can any meme hold the title of “first“? It’s a dubious proposition, especially when viewing the meme as something that predates the rapid sharing culture of social media.

As for the first internet meme, it may be one that was birthed just as the internet was in its infancy: “Dancing Baby.”

In 1998, the gyrating fever dream, also known as “Baby Cha-Cha,” lit up people’s multicolored iMac G3s. While it didn’t exactly make the rounds on Reddit—it wasn’t created yet—the twirling tot was appearing on the hit show Ally McBeal before the year was done.

But what about the memes that predated the Internet Age? Popular culture is filled with images and texts that that can be spread rapidly by others. One such example dates back to the days of World War II—the curious case of a long-nosed character known as “Kilroy.”

During the war, a peculiar bit of graffiti started popping up in areas across Europe and the Pacific that had been captured by Allied forces: a funny cartoon man peeking over a wall with the caption “Kilroy Was Here.” The familiar phrase and doodle, which supposedly began with a U.S. ship inspector named Kilroy, became a favorite “in-joke” to lift the spirits of soldiers marching into harm’s way.

An engraving of Kilroy on the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC (LR_PTY/Flickr)

This bit of wartime tomfoolery could certainly be classified as a meme for the Greatest Generation. Mary Anna Mancuso, a digital political strategist from Florida, argues for its memehood—“This kind of graffiti offered a little humor during a bleak time in history, and in today’s modern memes, they offer humor to the reader as well.”

The desire for shared jokes and connectivity goes back a ways into antiquity. Luttrell argues that the Fertile Crescent may be responsible for the very earliest meme spreading: “You can trace the origins of social media back to Ancient Persia with the advent of the first postal system, which opened communication and brought about a larger sense of community.” There is, in fact, a classic image that could very well own the meme that commented “First!” on humanity.

The Sator Square, perhaps the earliest meme (Know Your Meme)

The Sator Square is a word square palindrome from the first century A.D. It has been called the Sator ‘Magic’ Square because it can be read right-to-left, left-to-right, up-and-down, and down-and-up. It’s five words in Latin that, loosely translated, mean “The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort,” with Arepo being a proper name. The curious crossword has been found carved onto medieval drinkware, Roman ruins, and even a wall in the doomed city of Pompeii.

Is it the first meme? Well, it has been uploaded to the 100 percent-not-official-but-highly-useful “Know Your Meme” database. As it does with most things, the internet will likely be the ultimate arbiter.

Love Your Selfie

While people may enjoy sharing jokes and connecting with others with similar interests, nothing quite captures the attention of the human race like our own damn selves. Hence, that ubiquitous portraiture that fills our smartphones and Snapchat feeds—the selfie.

Before excavating its origins, it is worthwhile to understand why the self-facing photograph is so popular. Hugo sees the selfie as everyone’s own personal brand to the world: “People are naturally interested in presenting the best version of themselves, whether this is online or in person. When we’re carrying around cameras all day, publishing our own newsfeed about our own lives, of course we will feature on [that newsfeed], and selfies are a natural part of that.”


Few doubt that the selfie is predominantly about how we want the world to perceive us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a one-way form of communication.

“Overall, people enjoy looking at themselves and connecting with others, both of which can be accomplished by taking a selfie and posting it,” says Mancuso, “…it allows other people to feel a connection, without being in the physical presence of that person.”

The selfie is, like much of social media, a conversation that we have with society and ourselves.

So, who should really get credit for taking the first selfie?

While Paris Hilton can claim many arguable achievements, inventing the selfie is sadly not among them. And while Instagram user @JennLee has the honor of first posting a self-portrait to Instagram and tagging it #selfie, she’s merely part of a long ego-driven history of photographers who turned the lens on themselves.

In fact, to find the first individual who sought to immortalize their own image on film, you have to go all the way back to 1839. A photography enthusiast from Philadelphia named Robert Cornelius has the distinction of being the first person known to take a self-portrait using a camera—and he did so a full two decades before the Civil War.

Library of Congress

Of course, if you take out the photographic element, you can find many, many artists over the years who have sought to reproduce their own image.

“Artists have been painting self-portraits for years—Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Cézanne, Norman Rockwell—the list goes on,” explains Luttrell, bringing to attention the lengthy artistic history of the self-portrait. In fact, the desire to share an image of one’s likeness goes all the way back to the dawn of man, says Hugo: “People have had portraits painted and drawn themselves on cave walls since 4000 B.C.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Self Portrait in Old Age” (1512)/Art Might

And while they may not have tagged it #selfie, you can assume the core intent with those early artists was the same intent that spurned @JennLee to snap her self-portrait some 6,000 years later.

The internet is steeped in our past and holds our future.

There is little doubt these trends have shaped our world. The role of social media cannot be understated, especially as it, celebrity culture, and politics came together to form a perfect storm of reckoning recently.

The immense platform of social media has truly begun to shape our history, as leaders find themselves with a powerful new tool to connect with the masses. “Social media has changed our politics because it has made the candidate and campaign easily accessible to the voter,” argues Mancuso. “By removing the barrier, social media has allowed everyday Americans to feel as though they personally know a candidate or politician.”

Josh Haner/The New York Times

This is undoubtedly true, though the door seems to swing both ways when it comes to unfiltered communication from public figures. For example, a solid 70 percent of Americans would prefer that their Commander in Chief were less communicative on Twitter. Perhaps he’d be better served sticking with selfies?

Indeed, from ancient Persia to Pennsylvania Avenue, communication will continue to evolve. It is important to be aware of these changes and learn how our communication has changed—and what has stayed the same.

It’s fair to say that the evidence for Hilton’s claim that she “invented” the selfie with Britney Spears is supremely lacking. Perhaps we should not be surprised by her boast: After all, reality show stars of all stripes are well-known for making wild and factually suspect statements to the public. But the heiress can take solace in knowing that her selfie was one in a long stream of humanity reflecting on itself, dating all the way back to the first cavemen looking up at the stars and pondering existence. As Hilton might say…“That’s hot.”

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