A brief history of the hashtag

For those of us who spend a lot of time immersed in social media, it’s hard to remember the time before the hashtag. Its invention as we currently know and use it is credited to Chris Messina, via this 2007 tweet:

Messina talks a little more about his motivation for this in a blog post also from 2007:

“I’m more interested in simply having a better eavesdropping experience on Twitter.”

And by “eavesdropping” he meant adding context and organization around topics and stories that didn’t involve directly following others also talking about it, unless you wanted to.

“What’s really interesting, however, it how these channels can be used as tags within Twitter to open up entirely new possibilities.

Every time someone uses a channel tag to mark a status, not only do we know something specific about that status, but others can eavesdrop on the context of it and then join in the channel and contribute as well. Rather than trying to ping-pong discussion between one or more individuals with daisy-chained @replies, using a simple #reply means that people not in the @reply queue will be able to follow along, as people do with Flickr or Delicious tags. Furthermore, topics that enter into existing channels will become visible to those who have previously joined in the discussion.”

Messina even did some mockups of what would eventually become the hashtag:

hashtag mockups messina

Twitter didn’t bite right away, but the hashtag did start to catch on to organize information around breaking news and politics in 2007 and 2008. From there the hashtag slowly spread across social networks. Instagram added them in 2011, and Facebook added them in 2013, while LinkedIn added and then removed the ability to use hashtags on their site in 2013. Pinterest supports hashtags in pin descriptions, and Tumblr has their own tag system that functions like hashtags to organize the content in posts. Content from platforms that don’t support hashtags – like Snapchat – will see their content reposted on platforms that do, marked #Snapchat and whatever other identifiers their creator deems necessary.

In the past nine years, hashtags have evolved from being a way to organize ideas into serving as a regular part of online communication; people will use them even in places where they aren’t clickable to emphasize a point, or as a punchline. The hashtag has definitely become an integral part of our lives.

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