Origins of the hashtag

Hashtags have become a part of life online, facilitating tagging of content on social media and blogging platforms. Think of it like a virtual library with no librarian - every time we post content with a #, we are helpfully categorising it into a hashtag archive, that is much easier to navigate than any Dewey Decimal Classification, and has much richer information in real time. (It’s also not dependent upon opening hours and there’s no late return fees; I probably could have bought the books for the amount of late library fees I paid as a kid!)

Incidentally, the # symbol is not new, it didn’t appear as a result of social media. It has been used since the 1970’s in computer programming coding to denote numerical values; in the 1980’s, programmers started to use it symbolise topics and channels that were available across entire networks, as opposed to local servers only. So, the # was already evolving into a way of sorting data, not just symbolising a number. And in 2007, developer Chris Messina proposed adopting a similar system to be used on Twitter to tag topics of interest, and he posted the first hashtag:

“How do you feel about using the # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp”

(BarCamp is an international network of user-generated conferences).

Twitter didn’t take up his suggestion, but users did – the hashtag became widely used in tweets relating to the 2007 San Diego forest fires, and there began a completely new method of communication. The hashtag was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorise messages. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that Twitter began to hyperlink all hashtags in tweets to Twitter search results, and in 2010 they introduced Trending Topics on the front page, displaying all hashtags that rapidly become popular in a given day. They then developed an algorithm to ensure topics trend naturally so that the trending list cannot be spammed. So, despite initially rejecting the # suggestion by Messina, Twitter eventually embraced the system, possibly because users had already run with it, and it’s now one of the most powerful symbols on their platform. The hashtag was also adopted across other social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr etc.) and became so routine, that the word hashtag was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2014.

Hashtags are now quite normalised in user generated social posts; however, brands have also begun to embrace the visibility they can deliver, whether that be long term hashtag handles or topical reactionary ones.

Varied uses of hashtags

A simple search, in real time, of a hashtagged word(s) will yield all the content that has been tagged with it. This is a very powerful source of information; it is also an incredibly smart evolution of communication. There are many ways to use a hashtag, here are some of the more common uses:

  1. Broadcast media – in recent years, TV channels have employed the hashtag during the airing of programmes such as #Gogglebox #FirstDates #FairCity. Broadcasters display a hashtag on screen, encouraging second screen discussion. This widely broadens the reach of TV shows, and Nielsen launched TV Twitter ratings measurement in 2013. Just think about how many times you have tracked viewers comments on twitter at the same time as watching the show; in my experience, the comments can enhance the whole show experience, as you share real-time commentary with fellow viewers. Twitter define 2 types of television-formatted usage of hashtags – those that identify the show itself, as well as temporary hashtags which presenters often use to gauge topical responses to show content (for example, a current affairs show might create a # for the topic discussed on that one episode).
  1. Purchasing – since 2013, Twitter and American Express have collaborated to enable users to pay for discounted goods by tweeting a special hashtag. AE cardholders can sync their card with Twitter and pay for offers by tweeting a special hashtag; AE tweets a response that confirms purchase. Not available yet outside the US, but watch this space, it’s surely the next step in remote payment.
  1. Consumer complaints – Twitter is becoming a common environment for customers to engage with brands for technical help, or to make complaints. The term “bashtag” was coined to describe situations where a user refers to a corporate hashtag in order to criticise the company or tell others about poor customer service. A UK study noted that as far back as 2012, a third of people had used social media to contact a company, and a quarter of those were over 55. Closer to home, you are more likely to see people contacting transport companies for example, wondering why there are delays to the bus/train/tram etc. Once a complaint is published socially, it’s out there, and generally will elicit a response faster than a call or email. Generally, social media is a fairly instantaneous way to get a response, but it can backfire. For example, in January 2012, McDonald's created the #McDStories hashtag so that customers could share positive experiences about the restaurant chain. But, the marketing effort was cancelled after two hours when McDonald's received numerous complaint tweets rather than the positive stories they were anticipating. Such is the nature of social media, you can’t just turn it off in the event of bad PR – responding is usually recommended.
  1. Sporting & music events – it’s common for spectators to use hashtags to tag themselves at matches or gigs, to spur competitive conversation online and for teams themselves to stir up hype in advance. The often jealousy-inducing tagging of #ImAtXyzGig is like a virtual form of the old school graffiti – “I woz ere”, except it’s not so anonymous! Last weekend the top trends in Ireland related to the rugby Pro12 final, the FA Cup final and Guns n Roses playing Slane. Whilst these are high profile events and will always drive talkability, hashtags or not, these top trends prove the power of social conversation.

All the above are all fairly obvious uses of hashtags; However, people are now using them in a much more seismic way when it comes to more social issues. Fundraising, political lobbying, protesting, and even declaring your safety on facebook in a crisis have been transformed not only by the scale and access social media delivers, but by the responsiveness it hinges on. “Hashtag activism” was coined by media outlets to refer to the use of hashtags for internet activism. There are numerous examples of activists using social media to prompt action and discussion on economic inequality, pushing political opinions during elections, or garnering support for charities’ fundraising as some examples.

It’s not all political (or negative) of course; there are some wonderful examples of genuine human emotion, support and belief in a cause. Here are three of my standouts:

  1. #ThrowBackThursday or #TBT – one of the originals and probably the most familiar. Users post or tweet pictures of themselves to reminisce about past events, whether it’s childhood pictures, past holiday snaps, or remembering loved ones. It’s not just individuals though who embark on #TBT, brands have embraced it also, using the hashtag a little differently by giving insight into the company’s past. Here in Mindshare, we had ample opportunity to utilise #TBT this year to celebrate the #Ford100 centennial, with lots of archive images of Ford cars. They were among the most-liked Ford posts this year.
  1. #IceBucketChallenge – I think we all know this one, whether we were nominated or not! In 2014 an online challenge went viral, in short, if you were nominated you had 24 hours to throw a bucket of iced water over yourself and post the video on social media. In return, friends got to sponsor you and funds were raised for ALS (motor neurone disease). A Boston college alumnus is widely credited with the idea, having been diagnosed himself with ALS, and looking for an engaging way to raise funds and awareness. It captured the world and went viral instantly; Even Bill Gates and George Bush got on board. Far from being a useless stunt – two years later the $115m raised in one month funded a research breakthrough that uncovered a gene variant and brought a cure one step closer. So, if you were one of those that doused yourself in freezing water three years ago, be proud that your efforts will actually have a profound effect on some lives.

A similar hashtag - #NoMakeUpSelfie – went viral shortly afterwards and raised money globally for Cancer research.

  1. #HomeToVote – my favourite example of hashtag activism, this was just a stunning social movement whereby Irish emigrants returned home to vote in the same sex marriage referendum in 2015, and tagged photos of their journeys home. It started with a group of Irish in the UK who set up a twitter account @gettheboattovote, encouraging any Irish in the UK eligible to vote to return to Ireland on polling day. This evolved into the #HomeToVote hashtag and in 24 hours 72,000 tweets were posted. Social media was filled with photos and videos of expats finding any way to get home – trains to Holyhead, buses, ferries, hitching, massive airport queues, indirect routes; the various locations people returned from - one guy even made it back from Sydney (for the weekend!). It gained traction in a few short hours, and the media jumped on it, dispatching reporters to airports and ferry terminals to capture the unique moment of this immense mobilisation of a generation     coming  #HomeToVote. A nation made a clear statement and the world’s media watched in awe over that 24 hour period, and the social campaign was largely credited with mobilising people living in Ireland to go out and vote (either way). 

Hashtags are here to stay. They help to sort data into topics, they create conversation, they are an evolution in communication driven by social media. Language and communication are fluid, they evolve over time, and constantly change and innovate as they are used across channels. And no doubt the hashtag will remain a powerful branding tool for some time to come.