We see them everywhere–#livingthegoodlife, #yolo, #squadgoals, etc. They pop up in our Facebook feeds, on Twitter, and Instagram. People even speak in hashtag now, though usually with of tinge of irony (let’s hope). But, what are hashtags, really? If you aren’t active in the Twitterverse or Instagram, hashtags tend to be things you just notice and ignore. And for many of us born before the internet explosion, a hashtag is just a “pound sign” from the old rotary phone of our childhoods. So, what is their purpose, and has that purpose changed?
According to Wikipedia, the hashtag was created in the 2000’s, mainly for Twitter. Technically, it is known as a “metadata tag,” which is basically a keyword assigned to a piece of information, sort of like a bookmark. It makes it easier for people to find messaging according to theme across a wide variety of social networks, i.e. #catswearingsweaters or #thingsgrandmasays. Hashtags organize messages sort of like a library or a bookstore organizes books according to subject–if you really like cats wearing sweaters then you can find every Instagram post attached to that hashtag simply by clicking on that specific hashtagged word. Easy, right?
Interestingly, this method of categorization was introduced off-hand by a twitter user in 2007 as a way to group messages for easy searchability. The hashtag was initially aimed at those who were technologically “impaired,” for lack of a better term. This new approach didn’t catch on until a rash of significant events around the world caused Twitter users to create hashtags to keep track of updates, and now hashtags are used around the world. Separate rules have even been created for languages that use characters instead of letters.
As of 2014, “hashtag” has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary. And the hashtag is so popular now that strict social rules have evolved, and one can either be ostracized from a conversation entirely or have their Twitter account suspended. One, two hashtags at most are allowing per post, anything more than that–you’re fired (metaphorically).
What started out as just a Twitter thing has now infiltrated most, if not all, social media platforms and is now a key player in advertising for commercials, sporting events, political campaigns, movies, breaking news, the list goes on. The hashtag even has a starring role on the late night talk show circuit, with Jimmy Fallon, for instance, performing a weekly hashtag bit. Check this out for a few laughs courtesy Fallon and Justin Timberlake on the subject. Who knows? Someday that automated voice over the phone might direct you to push the “hashtag” for “yes.”