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The History of the Hashtag
The octothorpe has come a long way.
The # symbol, aka the pound symbol or hashtag, is a defining feature of social media that’s become part of our everyday vocabulary. It’s reshaped how many of us find and share information online.
But the hashtag has a surprisingly modest origin story.
The hashtag first gained popularity on Twitter, but the startup itself didn’t create it.
The credit goes to former Google and Uber developer Chris Messina, who first suggested hashtags as a way to categorize updates around a specific topic in 2007. One of the first hashtags to catch on was #SanDiegoFire after Messina encouraged users tweeting about the fire to use it.
When Messina first brought the idea to Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, they weren’t all that interested. Williams said the idea was too nerdy.
In fact, many fundamental Twitter features today were created by users. Both the @ symbol used to tag an account as well as retweeting were created by Twitter’s early adopters, not the company.
It took Twitter two years to officially incorporate the hashtag into its platform.
Redefining the Role of Customers
Today that system is vital to how social media works. Hashtags have been instrumental to major movements from #metoo to #icebucketchallenge. Marketing teams base huge social media spends on the trending topics of the day. Many brands have even started designing emojis to go with targeted hashtags.
The power of hashtags has big implications for anybody in the business of understanding how people use and share information. But their origins as a user creation carry a marketing lesson as well.
It’s one Twitter’s Williams understands all too well:
“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.”