What do you call this symbol (#)? While there are many different names for it, many people these days have gotten into the habit of calling it a hash sign or a hashtag, thanks to the domination of social media. Why was a hash symbol used instead of something else? It turns out that shift 3 has been in use in the tech world for a long time. If you’re a coder, you might know that it indicates something that should happen before the program is compiled. If you’re using the programming language C, which has been around since the 1970s, and even if you’re not a coder, you still might encounter them. Hash symbols were also used to designate channels in the popular chat service IRC, meaning #sports would be a good place to argue with football fans; this paradigm has also carried through to more modern chat platforms such as discord.
It was actually this method of organising chat rooms that gave one early adopter of Twitter the idea to use the same symbol to make it easy for users to search for all the tweets related to a particular topic. In 2007 the modern hashtag was born. Twitter was fast becoming known as a place for up to the second news which made the hashtag a natural and useful complement to the posting style of many users, especially when they were commenting on quickly developing current events. By the summer of 2009 hashtags had become so popular that Twitter turned all hashtags into hyperlinks and heavily used hashtags in the trending feature that debuted in 2010, cementing their role as a topic identifier for what was currently popular. As other sites took to becoming sources of trending news and discussion, the hashtag found new homes on Instagram in 2011, Facebook in 2013, and YouTube in 2016. However, you should bear in mind that hashtags don’t function identically across sites in that some special characters will break a hashtag on some sites, but not on others.
To add even more effectiveness to the concept of a hashtag indicating a specific topic, many organizations, events, sports teams, political movements, etc have attempted to promote specific official hashtags for their followers to use to help them gain more visibility on social media, or to help organize tweets for things like Q&A sessions, feedback from angry customers, or contest entries. Individual citizens have also found ways to turn the hashtag into expressions of their own personalities or feelings on a particular topic. Some of these are exceedingly clever; while others look like they’re from people who only have a very questionable grasp on how social media functions.
No matter how you feel about the proliferation of hashtags, their popularity is both a method to catalogue vast numbers of social posts and a way for us to show the internet how smart we are. This means that it looks like they’re here to stay.