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#YMM in Fort McMurray

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WHAT THE HELL IS A Hashtag?” This question came from one of my grumpy, older, technology-shy relatives, and he caught me by surprise until I saw he was reading an article that had been copied direct from Twitter.

I had two choices. I could explain that the hashtag, also known as the pound symbol, was a previously underused key on the qwerty keyboard, that it had been adopted as the signal for a conversation topic. I might even describe to the grump that it was derived from the weight measure, not the British currency symbol, and that the #, after the @ sign, is becoming the most frequently used symbol on the internet.

But then I’d have to explain the internet and endure his pithy views on all ‘this modern crap”, so all I said was, “Whatever comes after it is what they’re talking about.”

So then he asked me, “What’s YMM?”

I walked away from him. I didn’t, couldn’t, even begin to tell him how important #YMM has been to me in the last three years. Before I drive anywhere I use it to find out the weather and road conditions. I won’t go south on 63 without looking at it, hell I rarely go to work without checking what people are saying about Supertest Hill and the Timberlea interchange.

I use it to gauge public opinion about things that are important to me in Fort McMurray. If I’m idle, I page through it, just to see what’s what and where. Aha! There’s a new restaurant in town, must check it out; the library has a Saturday morning reading thing on, I’ll take my boy to it; there’s a BBQ fundraiser at Borealis, that’s something to do on Sunday.

The fact is, without Twitter, I wouldn’t be anywhere as well-connected as I am: nor as well informed.

The 2011 provincial election in Fort McMurray was different in a few ways from any before. The real competition was between the far right and the near right, there were two seats being contested, and it was always going to be a close call. The young Turks (relatively speaking) from the PC were up against two well-known old guard names from the Wild Rose. Don Scott and Mike Allen from the Conservatives embraced the available technology and gave candid updates on Twitter as well as reports of their schedules. They mentioned people they had met, where they were going, and what they were doing. Within the limit of 140 characters they answered voter questions, maintained a link with their supporters, and maybe converted some unsure fence-sitters.

The two candidates from the Wild Rose party barely touched Twitter. They lost.

How much effect did Twitter have? It certainly helped fuel the forward thinking image of both PC candidates. They were seen as prepared and able to use any means possible to get their message across, and that may have meant the difference between winning and losing.

When I was a boy, the tv news was sacred in our house. That was always considered to be Dad’s time in front of the tube and we were told, in a pretty blunt way, what to do and where to go if we interrupted. The newspaper was the same. It was treated with a reverence unheard of today and the rest of us would sit and wait for my father to finish the paper, section by section, before we were allowed to look at the sports scores and the comics.

How quickly things change. The internet has reshaped how we receive and send information in ways that could hardly be imagined 15 years ago. Encyclopedias have disappeared, newspapers are struggling to survive, and reading as a whole has been altered so drastically that books, those real items you once held in your hands as you flipped from page to page, are in danger of disappearing.

The second biggest revolution has been music. Way back in the BC years, (Before Computers), your father would have been proud of his vinyl collection if he had 50 albums and maybe the same again in cassettes. Today that wouldn’t even take up a tenth of the memory on your phone. The change in how music is made is even bigger. The Arctic Monkeys launched their career on MySpace, (remember MySpace, the media sharing site even more annoying than Facebook?), and started to sell their millions of records by blogging. The Beatles, on the other hand, were turned down by EMI and almost never recorded an album, which would have been a tragedy. Music production has been altered forever, taking the control from the moguls and putting it back with the artists. It has also changed the way music is delivered; bands have to tour to make money—they can’t rely on royalties anymore.

And that, as I said, is only the second biggest revolution.

We have Google to find stuff, YouTube instead of MTV, Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family, Wikipedia for information, Amazon and eBay to buy and sell, LinkedIn to find a job…and Twitter to? What exactly is Twitter for again? Well, it is part of that biggest revolution caused by the World Wide Web, the way we give and get information. Forget about the 10 p.m. world news where 13 items were fed to you in 30 minutes. Those same 13 stories today can be reported, 140 characters at a time, in less than 90 seconds. Today we want to know things quickly, briefly, and now!

Type in #YEG on Twitter and hit enter. Immediately you’re connected to the world of what’s on in Edmonton. Pick another airport code. #YYC for Calgary. Same thing. If your town has no airport there will still be a hashtag identifier unless it’s in Saskatchewan and only has 12 people. #ShPk is Sherwood Park, #StAb Saint Albert. #RMWB also refers to Fort McMurray but is often used in a more official way. @MayorMelissa always ends her tweets #RMWB, and then adds #YMM to make sure whatever she has said actually gets to everyone. She has known for a while what others are now discovering. If you want to get word out to the people, Twitter is the medium. And the message is all controlled by that damn hashtag.

#Safe63 and #Twin 63 were a particular example of how Twitter energizes groups of people. In the wake of the horrific accident that killed seven people earlier this year, Twitter helped to galvanize support and political noise about the lack of safety on Highway 63. On the distaff side, Prince Harry’s escapade in Las Vegas a while back was spread ever further and faster by the social media. It is rumoured the photo of him hiding the crown jewels with cupped hands while cavorting naked in a Las Vegas hotel was sent, resent, tweeted and facebooked over 200 million times.

And if you were one of the few who hadn’t seen it, all you had to do was follow the hashtag #Harrysbollocks.

Twitter has taken a very laid back approach to its use and importance, mostly allowing the tide of public opinion to decide how its service would be used. It bowed to public demand and start listing trending topics, the hashtags most mentioned on a daily basis. This is interesting and often alarming information especially when people like the nearly 28 million Beliebers get loose and skew the trends for the day – although the folks at Twitter are correcting for that now. (It can also be occasionally brilliant. A hashtag called #oneletteroffmovies trended well on the strength of ideas like ’The Colon Purple’, ‘Apocalypse Cow’, ‘King Dong’ and the anticlimactic ‘Dude, there’s my car’).

Twitter also now reports how many tweets a day there are. By March of 2012 it was close to 350 million. It is likely nearer to 500 million by now, or about seven per cent of the world’s population.

In the beginning, Twitter was puerile, with tweets like ‘OMG I’m in the bathroom’ or ‘Woke up, hung over. Anyone seen my clothes’ as the norm. Had it stayed at that level it would have died a merciful death. Instead it became the barometer of celebrity success and the messenger of big events. Every time there was something interesting going on in the world, Twitter expanded. Sometimes these were nothing to be proud of: the Justin Bieber maniacal marketing effort mentioned above is a good example. At other times, history, like the news out of the Arab Spring revolution, helped to change nations, and Twitter played a part in that.

So what of the future? That depends, as always, on money. Twitter needs to increase revenue without damaging its rebellious free-for-all reputation. How that will turn out… well, you’ll probably find out on Twitter. In the meantime, #YMM will keep me informed if the power goes out downtown or if Keyano cuts any more courses this year. I can find out what my town council is doing as well as the library, sports clubs, bars, and restaurants. The Oil Barons score is available instantly, someone will tweet at two in the morning if the Northern Lights are showing, breaking news comes from at least five different sources. And now I can also follow YMM Magazine on #YMM.

Or Justin Bieber, if that’s what you really want.

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Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.