A Guide to #Hashtags

Hashtags have surpassed the boundaries of the internet and now show up on billboards, television ads, and product packaging. It seems like everywhere we look we can find one, but what is a hashtag and where did they come from? How did the # symbol go from mundane to meaningful? What is the function of a hashtag and why did they become so popular? Our clients often come to us with such questions and we’re left to believe the general public is just as curious, so we set out to answer those questions in this, our Guide to #Hashtags.

So, what is a hashtag? A hashtag is a metadata tag represented by the # symbol. It’s used on websites/applications like Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Youtube, Google+ and Instagram to organize information. The # symbol usually precedes a single word or phrase allowing users to search all posts that contain that hashtagged word or phrase. For example, users on Twitter and Instagram commonly use #tbt (throwback Thursday) to tag a post containing a message, image, or anecdote from the past. As you might guess this happens much more on Thursday than any other day of the week. Looking at the graph we can see the very recent and very sharp rise in #tbt use. #tbt to me serves as a sort of benchmark by which we can track the growth of the hashtag in popular culture. Along with #FlashbackFriday hashtags give social media users an opportunity for nostalgia and so much more.

throwback thursday trends


Hashtags put your posts into a large pool where users can search for posts with the same hashtag. For example, if you were to post a picture of your dog on Instagram and use the popular hashtag #dogsofIG everyone who searched that hashtag could find that pic of your pooch. Likewise if you’re in the mood to see some other cute dogs you could search #cutedogs or #dogsofIG and find thousands of puppy pictures. This feature gives users the ability to search all posts on a topic of their interest. Interested in cars? Search #Ferrari and feast your eyes on the millions of available pictures. If you’re using Youtube you’d return videos of Ferrari’s instead of pictures. If you’re using twitter, twitter posts about Ferrari’s, and so on and so forth. When you use #Ferrari in your posts you add to the growing pool of messages, pictures, videos, and more that are now searchable by that same hashtag.

So now you might be wondering, who invented the hashtag? How and why was it first used? The # symbol has long been used in C Programming for coding. It’s also been around since the late 1980’s in IRC (inter-relay chat) forums, but the # symbol was proposed for social media use by Chris Messina, an open source advocate who suggested they would be helpful to distinguish groups on Twitter on August 23, 2007. In the first documented use of a hashtag on a social media site Messina (factoryjoe) asked, -“how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” The term ‘hashtag’ was first used three days later in a blog post by Stowe Boyd. These two events birthed the #hashtag as we know it today.

So how did the off-hand suggestion of one man and the naming of that suggestion by another lead a worldwide media sensation? The answer lies within the nature of the hashtag itself. Hashtags describe trends just as they are a trend in themselves. They’re ubiquitous, popular, and have been lampooned for the often ridiculous extent to which they are used nowadays. (See below)

Hashtags were originally used in a more formal and journalistic manner than the one Mr. Fallon and Mr. Timberlake are poking fun at. In 2009 after the controversial and disputed election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protesters and journalists documented the post election upheaval with hashtags on Twitter. This represented a new level of organization and accessibility to international news on social media. That same year Twitter began to link hashtags to pooled search results. These elections represent the jumping off point for hashtags. Every year since their use has grown exponentially.

In popular culture hashtags help us to understand what is ‘Trending’. Trending topics range from statewide to international notoriety. They also range from the very silly to the very serious. Trending hashtags are very much a two-way street. A trending hashtag can be attached to an event; local, national, or international that garners significant attention. The stories and posts written about these events circulate on social media and as they are reposted and retweeted the accompanying hashtag circulates as well. A good example of a serious trend is the recent shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Searching #ferguson will now yield this article, as well as thousands of other posts and stories. The event itself was local but of such apparent social magnitude that it has now reached a nationwide audience. The accompanying hashtag serves as a means to spread the word about the event and organize the stories pictures and posts detailing it.

Hashtags can also be used in a media campaigns that wouldn’t have been circulated with as much natural interest as a news story. Corporations design clever hashtags associated with new marketing schemes in order to appeal to consumers and get their campaign trending. Successful campaigns like Nike’s #makeitcount engage social media users, in this case asking users to respond with how they “make it count” in their personal lives.  A successful campaign often offers users a prize in the form of cash or goods if the user reposts or makes use of the hashtag. Hashtag based campaigns are a dangerous game though. Often they backfire and lead to a widespread negative response from users. McDonald’s #McDStories campaign   was meant to encourage the sharing of ” positive restaurant experiences” but instead lead to users sharing stories of their worst McDonald’s experiences. Rather shortsighted move on McDonald’s part. In an unintentionally hilarious and stupid move the PR team for singer Susan Boyle came up with the hashtag #susanalbumparty. Read it for yourself and tell us what you think. Tens of thousands of users parsed the phrase up in, shall we say, less than appropriate ways; and certainly ways unintended by her PR people.

There is a definitive nuance to the hashtag, despite how seemingly droll and universal they are. Using the wrong hashtag can bring drastic negative press, while using the right hashtag can power a positive worldwide movement. Like it or not hashtags are in and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon; even though they can be annoying sometimes, and worthy of jest. Heck we joke about them all the time, usually by slapping them awkwardly into a spoken sentence and laughing at the result. “‘Andrew grab me a slice of #pizza’… ‘how about you #grabityourself'”. They’re certainly still quirky as they are recent, and we may never use them in our speech, but they are a topic of conversation. The hashtag is a powerful grouping and labeling tool that helps to organize the chaotic and ever growing amount of information in our social world.

Hashtags can build powerful advertising campaigns and empower the disenfranchised. For these reasons we should keep a close eye on their evolution and function in our world. If they’ve gone from obscure coding script to worldwide social symbol in five years, imagine where they’ll be five years from now!



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