The history of hashtags

GEMMA GATTICCHI

The term ‘hashtag’ was added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2014 as “a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that classifies or categorises the accompanying text (such as a tweet).” Also known as the ‘octothorpe’, the hashtag has transitioned into one of the most recognisable symbols in recent years.

Apart from its prior uses, the hashtag as we know it today was introduced in 1988 on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Here, users communicated with each other through channels indicated by hash signs. Their use in IRC was similar to their use today; grouping messages and visual content into categories in order to easily view the related content.

The hashtag has since shot to fame after former open source advocate and Uber Developer Experience lead, Chris Messina’s 2007 tweet, “how do you feel about using the # (pound) sign for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” Here he became the first person to use the hashtag on Twitter, as it is currently used, by asking his followers how they felt about using the hash to group conversations. Initially, Twitter founder Evan Williams said hashtags would be unpopular due to their technical approach, but 10 years later its popularity has contradicted his statement.

The hashtag has since been embraced by Instagram, Pinterest, and many other social media platforms. It has also become a fundamental part of contemporary communication, especially in the form of news sharing. According to an article in the Telegraph, around 125 million hashtags are shared by Twitter’s 328 million users every day. This also means that hashtags have become an increasingly crucial way to spread awareness. In the past years this has been noted with iconic hashtags such as the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign and 2012’s #BlackLivesMatter. According to The Washington Post, #BlackLivesMatter was used around 12 million times, and has since transformed from an online-community unifier to a political movement. It is the third most used social issue related hashtag, with #Ferguson placing first, being used over 27 million times. Both relate to racial violence, as #Ferguson emphasises the protests in the area after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.

South Africa has also seen the use of popular hashtags which have shaped how news spreads. #PayBackTheMoney and #ZumaMustFall have been widely used since 2015, with the latter gaining 60 700 tweets on 10 December 2015. #FeesMustFall, a cause closer to UP, gained over 370 000 uses in its first week alone, and the only event to have generated higher volumes in the same year was the State of the Nation Address.

The hashtag has also become a platform for data collection and statistics can be viewed pertaining to participation. According to The Media Online, in South Africa “activists coming out of Wits and UCT have definitely been the most vocal, producing a larger proportion of tweets than we would have expected given how many members they have”.

The hashtag plays the simple role of connecting relevant audiences. Consequently, it has since become the ideal example of how social media language and cultural systems have combined in modern society to create a synchronous system of communication and online sharing. This shows the power of the hashtag in spreading news, opinions, and even advertising. The hashtag has certainly earned its place as one of the most innovative communication tools of our time. 

 

Photo: Shaun Sproule

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