August saw a special anniversary for a social media revolution, as the hashtag (#) celebrated its 10th birthday – that’s right, a whole decade of hashtags.
Recognised today as the best way to group social media posts, let’s take a look at the history of the hashtag, and see how this previously-neglected button on keyboards and handsets alike has come to be so ingrained in our online interactions.
In yesteryear, the hash symbol was also known in the UK as the gate symbol, or as a denotation for the word number, e.g. #1; our friends across the pond knew it as the pound key or an octothorpe. Regardless of time zone, it was a largely ignored key, jabbed at only by frustrated consumers navigating their way through automated telephone menus to top up their mobile phones or pay their council tax bills… You know the drill, “Please enter your date of birth date/account number/shoe size/will to live, followed by the hash key.”
But fast-forward to 2017 and the hashtag is used across a plethora of social media. It’s used 125 million times a day on Twitter alone and has undeniably played its part in inciting social change, bringing important socioeconomic issues to the forefront of our conversations.
In 2014, the word hashtag earned its place in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you’ve probably heard it used in real-life conversation too, with ‘hashtag awkward’, ‘hashtag winning’ and ‘hashtag first-world problems’ being popular and common phrases.
The use of hashtags to create groups on social media started on Twitter in August 2007, when it was suggested by former Google and Uber engineer, Chris Messina. ‘How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?’, he wrote. Good idea, Chris.
Twitter didn’t immediately pounce on this idea, but in October 2007 Messina’s idea proved its worth when sudden and devastating bush fires broke out in the San Diego region of California. Twitter user, Nate Ritter, began using the social media platform to report the fires and, under the instruction of Chris Messina himself, tweeted repeatedly, including #sandiegofire in each post. Eventually, other citizens and well-wishers began to join the conversation, also labelling their tweets and making #sandiegofire the first successful example of hashtagging.
Hashtags for tragedies and geopolitical issues have since become the norm, with #prayfor… or #westandwith… commonly taking over the Twittersphere in the aftermath of a newsworthy incident.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Twitter finally embraced its rogue offspring, by automatically linking anything preceded by a #. In 2011, Instagram also began supporting the hashtag… Can you even remember a time before #nofilter? Nor us. Google+ also began automatically linking hashtags in posts in 2011, and after Vine and Flickr hopped on the bandwagon – Facebook got involved in June 2013.
In 2017, all and sundry are at the hashtag party and hashtags are a major aspect of most social campaigns. Brands use them to start conversations and engage with consumers, drum up user-generated content and run contests. And it works. On Twitter, posts with one or more hashtags are 55 per cent more likely to be retweeted. On Instagram, 7 in 10 hashtags are branded and posts with at least one hashtag have 12.6 per cent more engagement than those without.
Really, it’s difficult to imagine Twitter and Instagram without hashtags. Nowadays, post on either platform without one, and you aren’t likely to create interest, engagement or conversation. It’s the digital equivalent of mumbling at a party – you simply won’t be heard or make an impact, meaning your time and content will be wasted.
Anyway, long live the hashtag, we say.