#Ontrend: Five years of the twitter hashtag

#Ontrend: Five years of the twitter hashtag

Will Dawson

Will Dawson


Included in the Oxford English Dictionary this month, the ‘hashtag’ is celebrating its fifth birthday. As the most recognisable symbol out there, it has risen to gargantuan fame from humble beginnings. As symbols go, it’s #huge.

Twitter claims it was ‘created organically by twitter users’, but the life story of the hashtag goes back much further.

The actual ‘#’ symbol goes under a variety of monikers; the ‘hash’ or ‘number sign’ in the UK, the ‘pound sign’ in America, and the ‘cross’ or ‘hex’ in Asia.

Recently l’Académie française (the body on matters pertaining to the French language) coined it the ‘mot-dièse’, outlawing ‘hashtag’, in another crackdown on the perceived Anglicisation of the French language.

However, the contentious naming caused French users to take to twitter, igniting a war between #TeamDièse and #TeamCroisillon (hash) who were also only too quick to point out the irony that the hyphen in ‘mot-dièse’ actually makes it impossible to hashtag on twitter.

The symbol has always suffered from a crisis of identity. It started life as the ‘octothorpe’ a word invented by scientists at Bell Laboratories (of Alexander Graham fame) as an addition to telephone keypads.

The ‘octo’ came from the eight points, and ‘thorpe’ is from, well… nobody quite knows for sure. Among the theories is that it was named after Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, after the Old Norse (North Germanic language) word for ‘village’ or, rather less interestingly, that it was a completely arbitrary choice by a coder.

In any case, the hashtag blossomed from these contrived roots, and in 2007 software engineer Chris Messina suggested using the sign for groups on twitter. Unfortunately for Chris, it was instantly rejected for being ‘too nerdy’. Wow.

Years later, the hot-linked hashtags we know today took off in a big way after being popularised by President Obama in his 2008 campaign, and today the hastag’s power as a branding tool cannot be overstated.

The recent Suarez debacle and aftermath provides a good example, identified by Rhys Hillman, digital strategist at Snickers’ advertising agency. Snickers’ tweet, hijacking the #worldcup / #luissuarez trend, massively outperformed its simultaneous Facebook post prompting Hillman to declare: “Facebook organic reach is dead”. Check out the number of retweets!

From its modest beginnings, the hashtag phenomenon has permeated all aspects of our lives, dominating both our work and play; it certainly seems as though twitter and the incomparable hashtag are #winning.


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