History of Hashtags and Use in Social Media

Learn about the history of hashtags and how we've come to use them

Hashtags are those off-kilter squares with six protrusions pointing in every direction. Why are people using hashtags, and why have these symbols, which have colloquially been referred to as pound signs for decades, become so popular?

Most people associate hashtags with social media. These cyber appendages that internet users tack on to keywords are here to stay—at least into the foreseeable future.

Twitter app on a smartphone
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Hashtag History

Metadata tags have been around for quite some time. Tags were first used in 1988 on a platform known as Internet Relay Chat or IRC to group messages, images, content, and video into categories. The purpose is so users can search for hashtags and find content associated with them.

In October 2007, Nate Ridder, a resident of San Diego, California, started appending his posts with the hashtag #sandiegofire. He wanted to inform people worldwide about the ongoing wildfires in the area at the time.

Blogger Stowe Boyd first called them "hashtags" in a blog post in August 2007. At the time, it was the only thing that showed up in search results when you curiously Googled the term "hashtag."

By July of 2009, Twitter formally adopted hashtags, and anything with a # in front of it became hyper-linked. And the move was later accentuated when Twitter introduced "Trending Topics," placing the most popular hashtags on its homepage.

Using Hashtags

The are several reasons to use hashtags for personal and business applications. On your profiles, it's helpful to keep family and friends abreast of what's going on in your life and the things in which they are most interested in knowing about. While status updates are a means of doing this, hashtags are a means to group certain aspects of your life. For instance, if your family or friends are interested in spreading the word about a cause you're involved in, hashtagging your #cause allows them to find the latest news quickly. And not only about you, but others doing the same.

Corporations have created some of the most popular hashtags to promote a specific product or service. Small companies have followed suit, incorporating trending hashtags into their social media presence. It's a way to join in on a conversational topic and to create a new dialogue.

Some companies use hashtags to keep up with their competitors' marketing, learning what generates and doesn't generate interest. These meta tags can also be used to talk-up a campaign or spread buzz about an upcoming event.

The Downside of Using Hashtags

There are a few drawbacks to using hashtags. You don't own them, and there are no rules or guidelines. When you add the hash symbol before a word, it becomes a hashtag, and anyone can grab it and exploit it. It can be troublesome, especially in business, if it's hijacked and used nefariously.

For example, McDonald's, which is commonly associated with junk food and obesity (despite their efforts to improve that image), started a #McDStories hashtag that went viral in a negative way. Around 1,500 stories went out from users claiming food poisoning, bad employees, and other complaints. The good news is that only 2 percent of the Tweets that came in were negative, but the press they got from it was enough to sweat about.

Many people use hashtags for fun. Some use trending hashtags to share an opinion. Others help organize news stories around major events. And sometimes they're made up on the fly to make a Tweet sound funny.

The interpretation and usage are always up to you, like most Twitter lingo, but the basic function of a hashtag is to create a single, organized feed of Tweets around each one.

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