So how did the humble number sign become such a big part of our lexicon? And why is there sometimes so much emotion around its use? #let'stalkhashtags!
I love a hashtag and use them all the time in social media - sometimes causing ire among friends (#sorry). But before I go on, let's get one thing clear and make sure we are all on the same page about exactly what I am talking about. I think the best thing to start with is the gorgeous Wikipedia warning at the very start of their 'Number sign' entry:
'Number sign Not to be confused with the Chinese character 井, the sharp sign (♯), the viewdata square (⌗), the numero sign (№), the equal and parallel to symbol (⋕) or the gameTic-tac-toe's grid.'
Thank you, Wikipedia. Now that we have that clear, let's get to know this guy before we start analysing him and his role in the evolution of language, and how he has changed the way we communicate.
The hashtag was more commonly known in the past as the number sign/symbol or the pound sign (yes just take yourself back to all those times you have sat, unable to move, attached to a landline phone listening to a mountain of hold music before the interactive voice response system kicks in asking you to enter your password or reference number followed by the 'pound' key).
This guy's fancy name is the Octothorpe - named by those who invented the telephone. Octo representing the eight points on the sign. (Don't ask me what the thorpe means, and there is some controversy around how this part of the name came to be - after Olympian Jim Thorpe, a nonsense word with no meaning or from an old Norse term meaning 'field').
Use of this symbol dates back to the 1800s, and there is popular speculation that it comes from the Latin symbol which represents 'pound weight' - a small L and small B with a cross above the top (to avoid confusing the small L with the number one).
According to #hashtags.org - an organisation trying to 'organise the world's hashtags' (yes this really does exist) - the person who first used a hashtag on Twitter was a social technology expert: @ChrisMessina (yes, we now also refer to people with the @ symbol in front of them).
In August 2007 this technology guru tweeted:
How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
Barcamp consists of open workshops and events (for participants not observers) around technology and the web. They are worldwide and Messina wanted to use the hash symbol to connect online exchanges. The dudes at Twitter didn't really feel the love and didn't think it would take off. But it did, although not until a little later during the 2007 San Diego forest fire disaster. After the hashtag was adopted during the Iranian election protests in 2009, where it started becoming an international convention, Twitter finally got on board. They started hyperlinking all hashtags in tweets to Twitter search results and a year later they started reporting topic trends via popular hashtags.
What started as a way of filtering Tweets into topics - aiding search, grouping conversations and creating the ability to easily connect those with common interests - soon exploded outside of Twitter onto all social media platforms and beyond. Infiltrating our common language: in text messages and astonishingly our daily conversations!
This humble symbol's super star status was confirmed when Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon's skit #Hashtag went viral. It has over 31 million views and I never get sick of watching it! 'Hey Justin what's up?'...'Not much Jimmy, hashtag chillin'
Hashtags revolutionalised our language - and that is no small feat. Hashtags have met our need for a more modern version of "and I quote" (dancing fingers in air) in our conversations. They have met our need for a new short hand - to saliently make a point or to emphasise something at the end of a barrage of words. Excitingly, hashtags have given us a new way of expressing wry humour. Reducing the 'one-liner' to two or three words 'hashtag [sacrcasm]' #winning
Hashtags are the new dot points, and if you order them you can cleverly create a new type of sentence #thatiscool #don'tyouthink #youshouldtryit
Not everyone is a fan of hashtags. There are people out there who get very irritated at others using them. People who don't understand them. People who fear hashtags are degrading and diminishing our language. Those who have real issues with the absence of spaces and capitals in the written word. And people who just don't like them.
But to all those people I say:
#getoverit #embracethehashtag #theyareheretostay