Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Hashtag usage is everywhere, and has changed the way people search, post, discuss things and interact with others online; which has consequently changed marketing, branding, advertising, and even how many people text, talk and converse offline. But where did the #hashtag come from, and how did it become the omnipresent trendmaker and marker of the internet that it is today?
First, let’s take a look at the meanings and uses of the # symbol in American English. The symbol # was
primarily used in front of a number to indicate number (#2 pencil), after a number to indicate weight in pounds, and on phones was (and largely still is) called the pound sign. In programmer culture however (as well as in the UK and Irelenad), # is referred to as a hash.
The hashtag as we know it today was first suggested to the public by techie and former Google and Uber developer, Chris Messina. In Twitter’s early days, there were no hashtags or effective organizational features, and users were often frustrated by the inability to filter out irrelevant content. Searching for a solution, Messina suggested in a simple tweet on August 23rd, 2007 - “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
This wasn’t a throwaway idea; Messina put a lot of thought into using the # symbol to group together discussions on Twitter, and published a lengthy proposal two days later detailing his reasoning. It wasn’t an entirely original idea, either: Messina drew from the already long established use of the hash symbol to indicate which “channel” a message was meant for on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), so that users could find the information they were looking for more easily. A fellow techie, Stowe Boyd, quickly wrote in support of Messina’s proposal and suggested the # symbol be called a hashtag.
The hashtag initially had pushback from Twitter users and even from Evan Williams, Twitter cofounder, who reportedly did not believe hashtags would work for the platform. However, Messina believed that hashtags were a quick and easy solution to a major problem that plagued the platform, and continued to champion them. During the Californian wildfires in October 2007, many people tried using Twitter’s tracking system to track the fires, but due to the spaces between “San” “Diego” and “fire,” it was largely ineffective. Messina suggested the use of #SanDiegoFire instead - it proved very effective, and hashtag use began gaining ground among Twitter users as a way to label content. In 2009, Twitter finally embraced the # by introducing a search tool that hyperlinked all hashtags, letting other users see who else was using any given hashtag.
Since then, hashtags have been adopted by other social media platforms, and now have a life of their own. They are used to spread brand recognition, to spread awareness and movements, for status updates and funny memes, to increase online traffic and followers. Hashtags began as a quick and easy tool for grouping together similar content, and are now indispensable for countless different business and personal applications!
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