The history of the hashtag begins long before the internet. Known as a ‘number sign’ or ‘pound sign’, it has enabled humans to interact with machines in a variety of ways before its use on the internet.
Automated phone systems started using the pound sign in the 1960s as a way for callers to move to the next prompt. It is sometimes used in combination with numbers. When the symbol is applied in a series, it shows that a story has ended. The sign was first adopted with computers as part of a file name to show that an octal constant was used.
It was first established on social media in 2007. Chris Messina, a social technology expert, used Twitter to send out a message that read, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
Since that message, the hashtag has become a mainstay on social media websites.
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How to use a hashtag
In order to apply the hashtag effectively it has to be used properly. A few rules of thumb for using a hashtag include:
- Never use spaces; group multiple words together instead
- Use capital letters to differentiate between words
- Numbers can be used in a hashtag
- Punctuation marks, like commas and periods, cannot be used
- Special characters, like asterisks and ampersands, cannot be used
- The @ symbol can be used before a person’s Twitter handle
A social media user can use an existing hashtag to add to the commentary that already exists on a topic. For example, a user may use #me when posting a selfie. New hashtags can also be invented to create a new topic, as was the case when Tarana Burke started the #metoo movement.
Where hashtags can be used
The first hashtag was used on Twitter, and it continues to be a popular way to communicate today. Twitter is the place where most hashtags can be found, and it is also the place where users have been most creative with the use of hashtags.
A wide variety of other social media platforms allow the use of the hashtag including:
- Facebook: Hashtag support was added in 2013. Searching hashtags is not limited to friends lists.
- Instagram: Hashtags have been created for photo challenges, and it is a great way to discover new accounts.
- Vine: The use of Hashtags maximizes shareability of uploaded videos.
- Google+: They can be searched for on Google+, but a user can also search within Facebook and Twitter.
- Tumblr: Tags function like twitter hashtags, with the symbol being inserted automatically.
- Pinterest: Hashtags allow users to search for specific content on the website.
In addition Google search also supports searching for hashtags. It will uncover relevant websites and it can display search results from Twitter.
Using hashtags to tell a story
Social media users have gotten creative with the use of hashtags. Not only are they being used to link comments to a larger discussion, they are also being used to change the tone and add humor to certain posts.
For example, a user may post a comment that is only made clear when the hashtag is added. A few examples include:
- Looking forward to the weekend #TGIF
- Wearing socks with sandals is so attractive #kidding
- Just spilled my drink all over the floor by looking at my watch #fail
Sometimes, the popularity of the hashtag does not matter. Some users will create a silly hashtag just to make a point. For example, someone once posted “Sarah Palin for President??!? #Iwouldratherhaveamoose.” on Twitter. That hashtag will not be searchable, but it adds humor to the tweet.
Hashtags used in marketing
The use of this social media tool is popular with the general public, but it is popular with businesses as well. Some businesses create hashtags as part of a social media marketing strategy to promote an event, campaign, or a new product. In addition to creating a new hashtag, companies can also use existing hashtags to attract attention. For example, a travel agency wants to take advantage of #FlightDeals on Twitter. These two marketing methods will bring a lot of extra attention to a business when promoted properly.
There are analytic tools that enable businesses to see how their hashtags perform. A company can tell how often their hashtag is used, the effect it has online, who uses it exactly, and what is said in combination with each hashtag.