What Is A Hashtag? The Invention That’s Changing Social Media

Hashtags google search
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • May 28, 2015 at 1:16 PM

From Twitter to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and even YouTube, hashtags are all over social media these days.

They have become a way to search for specific topics and threads, draw in more traffic and users, and even to sum up posts in a short and concise way. But not that long ago these little #phrases were viewed as strange, unnecessary and even annoying.

There are still a lot of people who want to know what a hashtag is and how to use hashtags, so we thought we’d take a look at what this social media tool is and how it came to exist.

So…what exactly is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by the hash or pound symbol (#) on social media. Hashtags turn these words and phrases into hyperlinks that, when clicked, will take you to search results for the same tag within a specific social media site.

For example, if you see someone post a Facebook update with the hashtag #SocialMedia, clicking it would take you to a search page for similar results across Facebook. It’s the same on other social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

“Simply put, a hashtag is an easy way for people to categorise, find and join conversations on a particular topic,” the analytics service and hashtag hub website Hashtags.org explains.

The website notes that many social media experts, major companies, educators, public figures and institutions also use hashtags “to bring in more followers and increase brand recognition”.

To create or use a hashtag, all you have to do is put the # symbol before the word or words you want to tag, without any spaces, such as #HashtagInfo.

The invention of the hashtag

Former Google developer and social media startup founder Chris Messina created the hashtag in 2007, when he was exploring ways to channel and focus discussions on Twitter.

During an online, global tech “unconference” called BarCamp, he floated the idea on the social media site, tweeting:

In a blog post that followed this tweet, Messina explains that he basically wanted “a better eavesdropping experience on Twitter”.

Messina goes on to outline an existing model with similarities to what he wanted for Twitter, in the form of IRC (Internet Relay Chat) “channels”, which were actually created using a hash symbol.

“Now, in thinking about implementing channels, it was imperative that I not introduce any significant changes into the way that I currently use Twitter any more than I have for other features that have been added to Twitter (for example, @replies or direct messages),” he says.

“Channels would need to be a command-line-friendly addition, and one that would require absolutely zero web-based management to make the most of it.”

Building on this idea of channels, Messina says that if people adopted this method of creating and using channels, they would also be creating “channel tags”.

“Every time someone uses a channel tag to mark a status, not only do we know something specific about that status, but others can eavesdrop on the context of it and then join in the channel and contribute as well.

“Furthermore, topics that enter into existing channels will become visible to those who have previously joined in the discussion. And, perhaps best of all, anyone can choose to leave or remove topics that don’t interest them.”

 While Messina’s post and logic seems clear now, when he initially approached Twitter about it they said it was an idea that would only work “for nerds” and would never appeal to the wider internet community. But Messina continued to develop the hashtag idea and, in October 2007, it became a valuable tool for citizen journalists that were tweeting updates about the San Diego forest fires that were blazing at the time.

Messina sent a direct message to one of the people covering the fire and asked them to use the hashtag #sandiegofire. Others followed suit and people quickly realised it was a way to get updates on the situation from as many Twitter users as possible.

Gradually more Twitter users started to hashtag different events, helping it become a source of up-to-date and even breaking news. Around 2009, Twitter started hyperlinking hashtags, and developed its Trending Topics based on popular hashtags shortly after that.

Twitter now has a guide for using hashtags, although the social media company says that this tools was “created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages” and doesn’t credit Messina directly.

As the hashtag grew in popularity on Twitter, other social media sites began adopting it. Google Plus was one of the first, around 2010, followed by Instagram in 2011 and Facebook in 2013. Other sites and apps, including Pinterest, LinkedIn, Flickr, Vine and Tumblr have also used the hashtags, with varying degrees of popularity and success.

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These days, hashtags in social media posts are almost as common as a full stop (and sometimes look set to overtake punctuation in status updates anyway). As well as being used by individual users, they’re often created by major businesses such as television networks to help engage audiences with various content.

For example, the political panel discussion television series Q&A uses the hashtag #qanda to engage audience members and even source questions for the show. Similarly, big brands have created hashtags for their marketing campaigns, such as Snickers’s #hungrymistakes tag that encourages people to share obvious errors in designs or their own mistakes, and creates more brand awareness as a result.

When to use hashtags

With a bit of background on the origins of hashtags and what they’re used for, the next big question is when to use them. Do you really need to use hashtags for social media posts?

The short answer is no. Hashtags aren’t necessary for social media posts. But they can help you achieve a range of different goals on your accounts including:

Helping followers find content that’s relevant and related to what you’re posting.
When you use a hashtag, you give people in your networks a direct link to other content that uses the same hashtag on that social media service. So if you posted about a good book you’re reading using the hashtag #goodbooks, for instance, people could click that hashtag to find other posts that also refer to good books.

Increasing the number of followers you have on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.
If you use hashtags in your posts, it means they will also come up in people’s search results when they use that specific hashtag, so you can gain more exposure by using a hashtag and increase your followers as a result.

Using the #goodbooks example above, let’s say someone wanted to find book recommendations on Twitter, and searched for that hashtag. They could then see your post, click through to your profile and decide to follow you.

Creating a campaign (social, political, commercial etc).
Hashtags are great for any kind of campaign because they give people a way to sign off as well as something that becomes a kind of call to action. The Ice Bucket Challenge campaign from 2014 is a great example. People on social media would pour ice and/or icy cold water over their heads to raise funds and awareness of motor neurone disease (MND).

Hashtags including #IceBucketChallenge #ALSIceBucketChallenge and #MND helped group videos and posts relating to the “challenge” and created more exposure for the social media campaign.

Increasing the chances of something going viral.
Viral content is king. It gives people, causes and marketing campaigns a huge amount of exposure in a short amount of time, creating awareness of the content or its creator in a way previously unheard of. Hashtags help increase the chances of content going viral by giving people an anchor to the subject, theme or cause.

Hashtags themselves can go viral and also create more exposure for a specific subject. The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is great at making viral hashtags, often tweeting different tags on a theme and then sharing some of the best ones on the show.

 People tend to gravitate towards certain hashtags, particularly if they are based on funny or popular topics. The recent theory that Beyonce is always on beat – which was picked up by media all around the world – went viral because of the hashtag #BeyonceAlwaysOnBeat. Clicking on that hashtag on Twitter (or searching for it), brings up all the videos and memes the highlight how Beyonce’s dance moves fit with other music.

Hashtags have basically become an easy way to create communities around specific events/causes/promotions/topics/people/whatever you want.

The #future of hashtags

The fast-paced fickle nature of the internet makes it hard to figure out exactly what will happen with hashtags, but the chances are good that it will be sticking around. It’s practically an ingrained part of social media now.

But an interesting trend that’s come up in response to the practicality of the hashtag is its use in humorous ways. People have basically started playing with the idea of hashtags as a way of summing up unique situations, or even to tease others when they use a lot of hashtags.

You may not see a lot of results if you search for #toomanyhashtags, for instance, but what you do see will probably be in response to someone who’s posted an update that’s mostly made of hashtags.

Even more entertaining, though, is the way hashtags have evolved to be used as a way to sum up situations. So someone could post an update that says something like: “Just walked into a door and spilt coffee all over myself. #winning” to sum up a situation.

In fact, if you search for hashtags such as #winning, #nailedit or #funny, the results will be incredibly varied. Using hashtags in this way is more about summarising updates with a word or a phrase, rather than helping to group it, the way Messina originally intended.

It’s this varied use of the hashtag that’s really helped it take over the social media world. While it started as an idea that even Twitter called “too nerdy”, it’s now pretty much the definition of something that’s gone #viral on the web.

Images: Google Image search results for “hashtag”, source: supplied; a meme about hashtags, source: supplied; hashtags on a phone, credit: Maria Elena.

Hashtag flickr
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