#HappyBirthday: The hashtag turns 10

We speak to Chris Messina, the man who reinvented the character as a symbol, and share insights about the humble octothorpe

Happy Birthday Hashtag
The Hashtag turns 10

On August 23, 2007, a tweeted question helped change the history of the internet with its inclusion of a now ubiquitous symbol: the hashtag.

We reached out to Chris Messina, a product and user experience designer who has worked at Uber and Google, to ask about the symbol. “There are two reasons why I chose the octothorp [a fancier term for hashtag],” he tells #GNTECH. “First, it was already in use on IRC to identify channels. Those channels very much inspired my approach.”

IRC, short for internet relay chat, is the ancient (by online standards) protocol that was developed to allow the exchange of messages between individuals and groups on discussion forums (which Messina refers to as channels).

“The symbol was also readily available on the keypads of feature phones — and so typing it would be relatively easy for those users. Remember, the hashtag came out only a few months after the iPhone! Prior to the iPhone, most phones had hardware-based keyboards with the # symbol.”

According to Twitter, where the hashtag was first used in this way, the # symbol appears an average 125 million times a day.

Over the ensuing decade, the hashtag has grown from a tagging or categorisation tool into a symbol that has become aligned with powerful movements, hilarious memes as well as some clever (and not-so-clever) marketing.

#TheMovement

“There have been so many great hashtag movements that it’s hard to narrow it down, but those that seem the most culturally significant include #ArabSpring and #BlackLivesMatter,” explains Messina. “The degree to which these hashtags lead to revolution is debatable, but their role in elevating these topics to public consciousness is not.”

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag initially surfaced in the wake of the July 2013 grand jury acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer who had shot and killed 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin after reporting him as a suspicious person to local police in Florida. This hashtag fuelled discourse on race, policing and the justice system across the US and soon garnered worldwide coverage.

The hashtag has also been adopted as a means of expressing sympathy in the wake of a natural disasters and terrorist attacks. #PrayForParis (and #jesuisparis) began doing the rounds worldwide following the December 2015 massacre of 129 people people at an Eagles of Death Metal concert in the city’s Bataclan venue. Similar #PrayFor hashtags have sprung up following terror attacks in London, Manchester and, more recently, Barcelona.

Hashtags such as these aren’t restricted to Twitter. Thanks to its emphasis on visuals over text, Instagram has also become a source of user-made hashtag-linked content, such as this post by French artist Jean Jullien:

"Peace for Paris" Illustration by @jean_jullien #jesuisparis 🇫🇷

A post shared by Instagram (@instagram) on

But it’s not just large-scale social causes that turned the hashtag into a rallying symbol. People employ the octothorp to highlight and celebrate the little things they enjoy in life.

While hashtags have been praised for their ability to quickly raise awareness of important social, cultural and political issues, some critics have argued that they can’t affect real change and simply encourage slacktivism.

#mydubai

Residents of the emirate will be familiar with this hashtag, which can be found attached to anything from delicious dessert snaps to cool photos of the city’s most storied landmarks.

Shots of the Dubai skyline are another #mydubai staple.

🏜🌆 Photo by @eletrico_ae & @hudabinr #ArabMoneyOfficial

A post shared by ARABMONEY OFFICIAL™ (@arabmoneyofficial) on

As it stands, there are more than 22 million posts with the #mydubai tag on Instagram.

#BrandItLikeBeckham

Following their explosion in popularity, it was inevitable that brands would jump on board the #hashtagwagon. “Brands have quickly understood that hashtags are the best way to surround, elevate or be part of what’s happening in the world,” Benjamin Ampen, ‎Head of Revenue, Middle East and North Africa at Twitter, tells #GNTECH.

He says marketers are particularly hashtagging during Ramadan. “As an interest-based platform, sports, news, entertainment and cultural moments such as Ramadan gain a lot of attention in UAE and the region.” Ampen highlights UAE-based campaigns by Nestle (@NestleDessertAr) and Rani (@VimtoArabia) as hashtag success stories during the Holy Month.

#Fails

While many brands have made hay off the hashtag, others have not, often with hilarious results.

There’s no better place to start than the launch of Susan Boyle’s album in 2012. Her representative tried to keep things simple with a no-nonsense hashtag announcing a Q&A session with the English singer. However, a failure to capitalise words in the hashtag resulted in a simple event invite turning into a massive joke.

A common mishap with brands occurs when they attempt to hop on the trending zeitgeist. Simply look at what’s trending in a city, country or worldwide, stick that hashtag in a tweet and you’re guaranteed exposure. In the wake of public outrage over a not guilty verdict for Casey Anthony, who was standing trial for the murder and manslaughter of her two-year-old daughter, baked goods brand Entenmann’s decided to tweet: “Who’s #notguilty about eating all the tasty treats they want?!”

Hashtag
“Oops” doesn’t always cut it

Following an avalanche of backlash from users accusing the company of cynical marketing (and worse), Entenmann’s issued an apology.

#Hashtaghalloffame

Twitter has provided us with a list of top tweets. We’ve picked out a few cool ones. Happy hashtagging.

#FollowFriday

  • The first #Followfriday was on January 16, 2009, and there have been over half a billion #FF uses since

#NowPlaying

  • The first use of #nowplaying (or #np) was a tweet about the song Open your Heart by Lavender Diamond in 2007
  • #NowPlaying (or #np) has been Tweeted more than one billion times

#ThrowbackThursday

  • #ThrowbackThursday (AKA #tbt) has been tweeted 120 million times

The most tweeted TV show and film:

  • #TheWalkingDead
  • #StarWars

Sports champions of Twitter

  • Global sporting event: #Euro2016
  • League: #NFL
  • Team: #MUFC