Hashtags, at-signs, retweets, etc.
A hashtag is a sequence of letters and numbers preceded by the # sign (known variously as a hash, number sign, sharp sign, tic-tac-toe board, or, to Americans, "pound", which confounds British people used to their own currency symbol; INTERCAL calls it a "mesh"). The intent is to tag a tweet or message as pertaining to a particular topic to make it more easily searchable. While they are presently associated with Twitter, they actually originated earlier on IRC, where channels are given names starting with the # sign. Their introduction on Twitter is attributed to Chris Messina (who is an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon, the same institution where emoticons were invented).
Twitter automatically hyperlinks hashtags so that you can see other recent messages that used a particular tag, and "trending topics" are shown on the main screen of Twitter by some algorithm of theirs which finds tags that are being used a lot at the present time.
There is no official registry of hashtags; you can use any tag you want when composing a tweet. Sometimes the people in charge of an event, campaign, or other activity will come up with an "official" hashtag they try to get supporters, members, and followers to use, but they can sometimes get "hijacked" by people opposed to whatever is being promoted, so that when somebody looks up the hashtag they get largely snarky critical commentary. This possibility didn't stop an astounding 26 out of 59 of the advertisers who paid megabucks to appear in the 2013 Super Bowl from including hashtags in their commercials. (They seem to be what "AOL Keywords" were in the 1990s.)
Hashtags have shown up many other places besides Twitter. Google+ and Tumblr have made their own implementation of the concept, and they can be seen sometimes on other services even when no special functions are implemented for them.
Hashtags can name particular persons, places, or things: #Apple, #Thailand; or they can be cryptic abbreviations some in-crowd knows: #tcot, #ows; or they can be any other string somebody thinks makes sense to tag something with. A hashtag of #irony can be used ironically (or not-really-ironically, like the examples in the infamous Alanis Morissette song) if you wish.
The at sign (@) has a long history of usage in e-mail to separate the username/mailbox from the hostname/server/domain. However, in Twitter it has taken on a slightly different usage where it precedes the username, like @JaneSmith. This causes Twitter to hyperlink it to the user's public feed. Some other services also do a similar thing (see below), but the usage can even be found in other places such as blog comment threads where there is no specific software function supporting it, but people feel the need to denote in some way that their message is in response or reference to another participant in the discussion, so they use an @ sign followed by the name or handle of the person they're referring to.
- Facebook - "@" followed by username or page name. This is converted to a Facebook tag and the @ symbol will not be visible in the final message - "Having coffee with @Jane Smith" would be converted to "Having coffee with Jane Smith", with the name becoming a URL pointing to Jane Smith's page.
- Google+ - Implements a similar usage to Facebook and Twitter, but using the "+" symbol rather than @
- Menshn - As Twitter
- Twitter - "@" followed by username e.g. "@JaneSmith".
In Twitter, when the @ sign is the first character in a tweet, it won't show up automatically to followers other than the person to whom it's addressed, though it's still a "public" message in that it can be viewed by anybody (depending on the sender's privacy settings) in the sender's tweet history. If another character (usually ".") is added right before the at sign, this avoids this feature and lets the message go out in the regular feed, though the addressed user will still be alerted to it (as they would in any case where their username appears with an at sign in somebody else's message).
A few all-capitals initialisms show up at the beginning of tweets to indicate particular things that have been done with them. RT stands for "retweet", meaning that the tweet was originally posted by somebody else but has been re-posted by a different user. It is followed by the at-signed username of the original poster. One might sometimes even see several RT @user sequences in a row to note a multiply retweeted message, but the 140-character limit of tweets results in these being trimmed pretty soon. Some variants are also used such as MT for "modified tweet", where somebody else's tweet is reposted in an altered form. Sometimes the alteration is just to save space, but sometimes it may be a snarky edit designed to make a tweet on a controversial issue say the opposite of what it originally did. The "RT" usage started when retweeting was not a built-in function in Twitter and had to be done manually; the current "retweet" button uses means outside the 140 characters of the tweet to note its retweeted status, so the old usage is less common; modified tweets with "MT" still have to be done manually, so still use the traditional style for this.