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Hashtag is a social media guidepost

Being rather Internet-illiterate, I've always wondered what was the need for and the meaning of the hashtag symbol (#). — Frank W., Jacksonville

Well, Frank, we here at #SinceYouAskedIsAwesome are more than happy to try to improve your digital literacy. We, too, were once lost amid the hashtags, clueless as to the message they were giving us.

In essence, the hashtag — previously known as the number symbol — is used to create a common, searchable term for a topic on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Because there are millions of users sending out millions of messages at any given time, it's pretty darn hard to find the messages on the topic you're interested in. You can follow what your kids or friends have to say on a topic, but what if you want to see what total strangers have to say about it? Hashtag it, baby.

Here's an example: If you were a Duck fan during the Rose Bowl (apologies to the Beavs out there) and wanted to not only watch the game on the boob-tube, but also to see what people around the country were saying about it, you could have gone on Twitter and in the search box typed in "#RoseBowl." When you searched for that, the comments of everyone who used #RoseBowl in their tweet message would show up on the list that your search produced.

It's an imperfect science because there's no way to know for sure who's using what hashtag. But often, as with the Rose Bowl example, you can be pretty sure you'll find a bunch of people's comments on the topic if you type in an obvious choice.

So there you go, Frank. If this helped you, send us a tweet. Don't forget the #SinceYouAskedIsAwesome in your message.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.