It’s hard to remember a time before #hashtags. They flood our Facebook and Instagram feeds, and have quickly become part of the modern language – it isn’t uncommon for people to hashtag something in regular conversation. It has become so embedded in our cultural zeitgeist that we don’t even blink an eye at it anymore, kind of like ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ which are now both in The Oxford English Dictionary.
Language and culture evolve at a rapid, dizzying pace and it is understandable that an older generation fails to understand the lingo of the younger – this has been happening for decades. The origins of ‘LOL’ can be traced back to a magazine about the internet from May 1989 called Fidonet, which the linguist Ben Zimmer notes as the earliest citation of the acronym. The hashtag however, is far younger. As far as anyone can tell, the earliest incarnation of the hashtag on mainstream social media came to fruition just 10 years ago. Internet Relay Chat, or IRC was essentially an early form of MSN Messenger (OMG remember that, LOL.) IRC was an application layer protocol that facilitated communication in the form of text, allowing for private messaging, group communication, data transfer and file sharing. The pound sign (which is the correct name for the hashtag symbol) was used within IRC networks to label topics of chat, and different groups. Back in 2007, when Fall Out Boy were still a household name and Kevin 07 inspired a bored Australian electorate only to fizz out once elected, a man by the name of Chris Messina posted a single tweet on Twitter which would go on to change the course of internet history forever. The Twitter platform had only launched about a year prior to the fateful tweet by Chris, which you can see in all of its historical glory below.
Suggesting that the hashtag be used in a similar way as it was on IRC platforms was not initially taken up by Twitter. But Chris’ idea that a hashtag could be used to group tweets according to their relevance to one another became imperative during the the San Diego forest fires of October 2007. Citizen journalists were using the hashtag #SanDiegoFire to post updates and warnings about the fires. However, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams told Chris that hashtags were “too nerdy” to go mainstream, and didn’t officially adopt the idea. Due to the nature of the platform, people could still create and follow hashtags. Twitter‘s aversion to hashtags wasn’t exactly out of character for them. When people started referring to posts on Twitter as “tweets,” the founders tried to suppress adoption of the term, because they didn’t like it. Eventually Evan Williams caved to the public pressure on both the “tweets” and hashtag fronts, saying “most companies or services on the web start with wrong assumptions about what they are and what they’re for. Twitter struck an interesting balance of flexibility and malleability that allowed users to invent uses for it that weren’t anticipated.” Messina, the patron saint of hashtags, has said he is proud of creating them on Twitter “because they’re a hack and they prove that simple solutions are often the best ways to solve a problem, (like updating people on forest fires) rather than waiting for a technology solution.”
Since 2007, hashtags have become commonly used across all of our social media platforms, and have been adopted by every day people, brands, charities, bands, even the goddamn President Of The United States loves himself a good hashtag (along with some wildly inaccurate, democracy debasing, falsehood spreading tweets.)
*Like this one – where he put billions of dollars back into the polluting coal industry with the hashtag – #MadeInTheUSA
Over the last ten years, hashtags have resulted in some massive, heartwarming displays of human solidarity. While often hashtags end up in the hands of “keyboard warriors” – people who care about issues only from the safety of their laptop – they’ve also allowed us as a global community to draw attention to the issues that matter most to us. Take for instance the Standing Rock situation. Two pipelines being built in the U.S.A, the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline were condemned by native Americans, who said that the construction of such pipelines would impeach on sacred Native American sites, and had the potential to contaminate drinking water in those areas. An online battle erupted to save the land of these people, with hashtags like #StandWithStandingRock and #NoDAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) becoming trending topics around the world. The mounting pressure from social media caused then President Obama to abandon the project altogether, only for it to be revived just a few weeks ago by the current hashtag loving President/oompa loompa a long way from home.
Though that story has a sad ending, with construction starting on the pipelines that people fought so hard to prevent, there have been many other successful hashtags over the last decade that have resulted in increased social awareness and positive social change. Things like the #IceBucketChallenge allowed for heightened awareness of ALS (or Lou Gehrigs Disease) and the donations from that campaign ended up funding a breakthrough in the study and treatment of the disease. Of course as with anything, there is a good and a bad side. For every tweet or post supporting an important cause with the use of a hashtag, there are as many if not more hashtags that serve little to no purpose, and end up looking ridiculous and self-serving.
Hashtags turn ten this year, and in that short life-span they have been cemented as an essential part of our culture, and forever changed the understanding of the pound symbol, which was formerly used to simply to denote a numerical value. We live in a rapidly evolving world, and the ascent of the hashtag over its ten year life is just one poignant example of how quickly the times are changing.