This morning, an idea popped into my head. Aggressive movie lines turned into timid ones. I jumped onto Twitter and wrote the following items:

Why, yes, I am Spartacus. #calmmovielines

Stella? Stella? Excuse me, Stella, can you hear me? #calmmovielines

Khan. #calmmovielines

That #, a hash mark or number sign, is called a hashtag when it precedes an item without spaces in Twitter. Hashtags arose from the vernacular on Twitter; nobody at the company planned them, but users added a # to make topics searchable.

Twitter embraced and extended itself to make the tags even more useful for this purpose, and to track "trending topics," or hashtags that were getting lots of usage. More recently, it started showing trending topics in several cities (including Seattle) and countries, to try to drill down on what people were talking about. (Update: A commenter notes that Twitter's search engine and trending topic treats all words equally; hashtags are still in the vernacular.)

Now my three lines above aren't stellar examples of humor, or any such; just a little doggerel I shared with the 2,100 or so people who follow me.

Hashtags that you invent yourself typically just disappear into the ether. Many people write extremely long hashtags as jokes, never expecting them to be used twice. Because anyone can invent any tag, there's no cost to using them—there's no central registry or approval process or any such nonsense.

New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (@susanorlean), for instance, seems to reveal in creating hastags, using #iwannaliveinthegooglevoiceworld today, for example, to refer to a fortuitously mistranscribed message from Google Voice's voicemail conversion service.

My particular silly effort normally would have followed all such others. But it was picked up by radio host, former Seattelite, and friend John Moe (@johnmoe), who followed my efforts with his more professionally humorous entries (he is a card-carrying humor professional, after all):

I doubt they would take away our freedom. I mean, they wouldn't do that, would they? I certainly hope not. #calmmovielines

I'm quite upset and as for continuing to take it I'm opposed to that particular direction. Thank you for listening. #calmmovielines

Jerry, once we receive the check, would you mind showing it to me, please? Thanks. Well, off to football practice. #calmmovielines

John has more than 3,100 followers on Twitter, but, more importantly, many of them are also professionally (i.e., paid) funny people who will take a football and run with it. John's use of my tag resulted in a bunch of other funny people with many thousands of followers using the same tag.

Twitter offers a leveling influence. While the number of followers one has does have an impact on how widely what you tweet is distributed, there's also a mass effect. Anyone can tweet anything, and hashtags are one way a meme explodes.

Some number of the millions of followers of the various people who had also used #calmmovielines started using it themselves. That led to other well-followed people using it, like political reporter (formerly of Wonkette) Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox), who has 1.5 million followers. This can continue until a meme blows itself out like a storm.

Within minutes of starting the meme, my Twitter client was flooded with people using it. By this afternoon, the hashtag was the tenth most popular trending topic worldwide. It was fascinating to watch. Despite my 16 years of near-daily work and play on the Internet, I don't believe I've ever been part of a viral meme.

What did I get out of it? I've seen the origin of a meme outbreak, and watched it flow. I came up with a funny idea, and perhaps spread some joy (or at least caused millions of hours of wasted time).

All I want to know is: When do I get my check?

Oh, right.
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