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. What are people using hashtags, and why have these symbols, which have colloquially been referred to as pound signs for decades, become so popular?

When most people today think about them, the chances are excellent that they associate them with social media. These cyber appendages Internet users tack on to keywords are here to stay — at least well into the foreseeable future. 

Twitter app on a smartphone
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Hashtag History

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

Fast forward to October of 2007, when Nate Ridder, a resident of San Diego, California, started appending all 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 particular cause you're regularly involved in, hashtagging your #cause will allow them to find the latest news quickly. And not only about you, but others doing the same.

Corporations have been responsible for creating 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 not only to join in on a conversational topic but create a new dialogue. Some companies use hashtags to keep up with their competitors' marketing, learning what does generate 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 else 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 various other complaints. The good news is that only 2% 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 just made up on the fly to make a Tweet sound funnier. The interpretation and usage are always up to you, like most Twitter lingo, but the most basic function of a hashtag is to create a single, organized feed of Tweets around each one.