#Winning: hashtags celebrate 10th birthday

#ZeroToHero: The word “hashtag” entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2014.

Ten years have passed since the # symbol was lifted out of obscurity and turned into a revolutionary tool of communication. How have hashtags changed the world? And should we be grateful?

On August 23rd 2007, just as Twitter was taking off, Google employee Chris Messina sent out a tweet:

“How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Messina was looking for a way to group tweets by theme. He had seen the # symbol serve a similar purpose in online chat rooms, so he proposed it for Twitter. “Everybody said it was kinda dumb,” he later recalled.

But people started using # anyway. It quickly took off. Twitter embraced “hashtags” (as they came to be known) in 2009, allowing users to search for other tweets with the same tag. The rest is #history.

Ten years on from Messina’s tweet, some 125m hashtags are shared on Twitter every day. The feature has spread to other social networks. People now use it to express their location (#OvalOffice), state of mind (#YOLO), interest in an event (#Rio2016), solidarity with a social movement (#JeSuisCharlie), and much more.

Because social media is so fast-moving, hashtags often cover breaking news before anyone else. In 2014, for example, #Ferguson was trending before TV networks knew about the unrest in that city.

Similarly, hashtags can fuel (or even launch) social campaigns — a phenomenon known as “hashtag activism”. That is how Black Lives Matter started.

Marketing has exploited the ability of the hashtag to spread a message far and fast. Many ad campaigns now come with a hashtag. Fashion retailers keep a close eye on what is trending on Instagram. Some brands have trademarked hashtags, contradicting Messina’s view that no one should “own” them.

Meanwhile, hashtags are subtly influencing the way we use words. They have spawned a music genre, “hashtag rap”, in which the rapper caps off a line with a single-word punchline. The word “hashtag” has even infiltrated spoken language, as in: “That show is hashtag awesome.”

In an article marking the tenth anniversary of his creation, Messina reflects that the hashtag has transformed “how we … communicate, possibly forever”. Has the change been for the better?

Making a hash of it

No, say some. Social media in general has damaged the way we talk and think. It simplifies ideas and creates echo chambers, discouraging us from thinking deeply about issues. Hashtags take this to the extreme. Typing #BlackLivesMatter is a poor substitute for going out and actually campaigning. And #YOLO is just annoying.

Nonsense, reply others. The concision of hashtags is their strength. They convey a message — whether a political slogan or a cultural meme — in a punchy, memorable way. They bring together like-minded people and give identities to marginalised groups. And they can be hilarious (think of #FirstWorldProblems). We are #blessed to have them.

You Decide

  1. How would you feel if you were banned from using hashtags?
  2. Is hashtag activism a good thing?

Activities

  1. Write a sentence using each of the nine hashtags in the graphic above.
  2. As a class, come up with a hashtag for a cause that you think is important. Then discuss: could it actually change people’s minds about the issue?

Some People Say...

“I exist, I am here, and I choose to express myself!”

— What a hashtag says, according to Chris Messina

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We have plenty of stats on existing hashtags. According to Websta, an analytics company, the most used hashtag on Instagram is — wait for it — #love. At the end of 2016, Twitter revealed that the most popular tag that year was #Rio2016, referring to the Summer Olympics. In 2015 it was #JeSuisParis, which people used to show solidarity with the French capital after two terrorist attacks.
What do we not know?
What makes for a successful hashtag. Some, like #Trump, arise naturally in response to real events. Others are created from scratch, often with the specific goal of going viral. The vast majority will fail to do so — luck is involved. But marketing experts have been studying this area closely; one gives some tips in the Brandwatch article in Become An Expert.

Word Watch

Pound
One of the many names for the # symbol. It is also referred to as “hash”, “number sign” and “octothorpe”.
#barcamp
BarCamps are a series of technology conferences. Messina originally intended the hashtag as a tool for people to discuss an event they were attending.
Unrest
Protests, some of them violent, engulfed the Missouri city after a white police officer shot dead a black teenager on August 9th 2014.
Black Lives Matter
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was coined in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white police officer who had shot dead a black teenager. It evolved into a rallying call for an international movement which campaigns against racism.
View
“I specifically didn’t want anyone to own the idea or be able to prevent others from using it,” wrote Messina.
Single-word punchline
Here is an example from Drake: “Swimming in the money, come and find me — Nemo.”
Echo chambers
Where media repeat and amplify a limited range of ideas and information. This often happens on social media, where users follow people who they find tend to share their own views.