History of Hashtags: How a Symbol Changed the Way We Search & Share
In the span of approximately 10 years, hashtags went from being a useful tool known in programmer culture to a mainstream organizational device for online content.
In the pre-internet days, what we called the # symbol depended on what country we were raised in. Americans and Canadians called it the pound sign or the number sign, whereas Britons and the Irish called it a hash. However, in the context of the internet, we all call the # a hashtag.
Stowe Boyd, who published the first known use of the word “hashtag,” told Wired that the name “hashtag” comes from programmer culture because he and his friends would refer to the symbol as the hash, not the pound sign.
Today, the symbol is so pervasive in social media that almost every major social media platform supports some functionality for the hashtag.
In 1988, the first hash symbol was used on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to label groups and topics that were available across the entire network. They were used for grouping similar messages and content to make it easy for users to find the information they were looking for.
Twitter did not always have a hashtag feature. In its early days, users complained that it was a bit of a free for all and that they were seeing irrelevant content. Looking for a solution to this problem, Chris Messina took inspiration from IRC and unleashed the first Twitter hashtag on August 23, 2007. However, the hashtag wouldn’t take off until the 2007 California wildfires in October 2007.
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— molly.com/chris (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
While Twitter did not support the hashtag in 2007, Chris Messina saw an opportunity to get the hashtag noticed. California resident Nate Ritter happened to be prolifically tweeting about the wildfires. At the same time, Messina noticed that SanDiegoFire was being used as a tag on Flickr. This inspired Messina to reach out to Ritter and suggest the use of #SanDiegoFire on all relevant tweets.
Ritter’s tweets became so well known that Twitter users started using hashtags to group relevant content. In 2009, Twitter finally embraced them and introduced a search tool, so that users could see who else was using a particular hashtag. The following year Twitter introduced “Trending Topics,” which displays the most popular hashtags at a given time.
From there, hashtags were adopted by other platforms and became part of the internet lexicon. Instagram, which was launched in 2010, has used them from day one. Facebook added them in 2013. Google+, Tumblr, and Pinterest also let users group content by simply using the # symbol.
Since their introduction to the mainstream internet, hashtags have gone from a convenient way to group content to an indispensable tool. In 2010, they were used to coordinate the Arab Spring. The hashtag #MeToo is used to raise awareness about sexual assault and harassment. The latest hashtag to go viral is #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe, which is being used to celebrate a superhero movie starring black actors and African American culture. Now the question isn’t “How will we organize topics on social media?,” it’s “What will be the next movement to be inspired by a hashtag?”
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