When the founders of Twitter first imagined the site, they didn’t think the hashtag was going to become one of its most useful features. Chris Messina is credited with that genius move. His tweet, suggesting users employ the pound sign to collect themselves into groups based on hyperlinked topics, led the way to its use today.

Hard truth: Many of the social platform’s users have yet to utilize it to its full capacity.

I’m not one to tell people how they should be using Twitter or hashtags. #JustSaying those that are maximizing its capabilities are using it to build their reputations, engaging with people through scheduled Twitter chats, one-off Twitter parties, and doing just what Messina asked: gathering themselves into groups to watch their favorite shows together… apart.

Types of Hashtags

In 2011, Chloe Sladden broke hashtags down into two types, giving examples of two different shows using them to proactively engage with their audience.

Canonical Hashtag – evergreen/always promoted; uses the actual name of the program in the hashtag

MadLib Hashtag – can change daily; a prompt to promote discussion around a planned topic

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia uses the canonical #SunnyFX while BET used the MadLib #neverthat on an episode of 106 & Park. 106 & Park is highly effective at promoting these hashtags, as they are frequently on the trending topics list throughout the broadcast.

The Connection between Social Media and Television

There are a number of reasons for the efficacy of these hashtags. Live tweeting television shows allows watchers to actively participate in an activity that thousands or millions of others across the country or the world are participating in at the same time. Imagine feeling like you’re the only person you know who likes and watches So You Think You Can Dance. You might change the channel to something that you know people will be talking about the next day, allowing you to become part of the conversation. This fear of missing out is a serious psychological phenomenon affecting many social media users; it keeps us coming back to our newsfeeds and timelines hour after hour.

Don’t think this is a generational trend. Communal television watching has only evolved to take place online; Millennials didn’t start the fire. This clip from an episode of A Different World shows a largely GenX crowd watching an episode of The Montel Williams Show together.

The group is interested in the show but become more interested once they learn who is on air – someone they know, someone who is struggling, and someone who has some tea to spill. Would they be as interested if they were alone? Not likely. Much like current reality TV programming, these shows relied on word of mouth for popularity.

Appointment TV

Did you watch _____? No? Well, I can’t talk to you about it until you’ve seen it.

While your friend is off having conversations with everyone else who has seen the program, you’re left out. Twitter and the hashtag has brought television back from the DVR. Now, we have to watch the show live so that we can talk about it while it’s on and after it ends, speculating about future episodes. Shows that have the most drama get the most conversation. Controversy sells online.

It’s not the only thing that sells though, evidenced by the tremendous amount of discussion around the 2014 World Cup. Sports have always brought people together; but, until recently, you had to go to a bar, gym, or stadium to participate in the revelry. With Twitter, you can be the only sports fan in your home yelling GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL and not feel alone alongside your entire timeline erupting with the same joy at the same time.

You may not have to be alone for long. You never know who you can meet by clicking on a hashtag, following the people discussing the topic, and joining in the conversation.