The Humble History of the Hashtag #And #Why #It #Matters

Jun 20, 2013

The popularity of the hashtag (#) has just received another boost with the recent news that Facebook will now be rolling them out to their users. The official Facebook announcement states that hashtags will be clickable and allow users to see public posts around shared topics like #NBAFinals, #Oscars, and more. While most of us are familiar with those four simple lines and their rise to fame on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, their background and meaning remains shrouded in internet lore. Who created the hashtag? Why is it called a pound sign, number sign, and a host of other names? And why do we use them, are they actually helpful?

To understand the origins of this symbol (#) we have to realize that there are numerous icons with four lines in a similar pattern that have been around for hundreds of years before the hashtag. The Chinese character jing (well) is from 900 BC, the musical notation for sharp originated in 14th century German music publishing, and the Oxford English Dictionary in 1923 lists the # as a symbol meaning number or pound. Regardless of the ancient meanings tied to this cross hatch of lines, the modern day use as a hashtag began it's life like all other great inventions: As a joke between telephone engineers.

In 1964 AT&T telecommunication engineers jokingly referred to the fairly new symbol as an octotherp or octothorp(e). Good jokes spread among engineers and in 1968 the geeks at Bell Labs were finalizing the touch tone keypad and filled in the two bottom buttons on either side of the "0" with the sextile (an asterisk symbol) and the octothorp (#). The first official record of the octothorp appears in a 1975 patent for the current telephone keypad that is still in use on your iPhone 5 call screen today. While it may have started out as an inside joke for geeks, the ubiquity of the pound sign, number sign, or hash symbol was cemented into our culture with the launch of the touchtone phone. When the standardized touch tone keypad went global, the UK called the # symbol a hash to eliminate confusion with the £ symbol for the British Pound currency.

Skipping ahead a few years in the 1970's the hash was implemented in UNIX (hat tip to the Bell Labs engineers again) and spread to other programming languages as a way to annotate comments into code. The 1980's saw the hash move into IRC Internet Relay Chat as a way to define channels. But the Eureka moment for the hashtag as we know it today came on August 23, 2007 when Chris Messina (now @chrismessina on Twitter) sent this tweet: "how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp". Out of this one tweet we saw the rise of using keywords that followed the # symbol. This allowed for easier searching of Twitter to find events, topics, and information that was relevant to you. Two years later in July of 2009, Twitter officially embraced hashtags and made them a clickable link that would show you other tweets using the same hashtag.

The rise of hashtags over the last four years has expanded to other social platforms and even offline usage. Most conferences, TV shows, and events now promote a standard hashtag to use to communicate with others. The addition of Facebook to the hashtag fold is no surprise, users have been posting hashtags on their platform for years but now they will finally be able to click and interact with those tags.

So why should we care about this collection of four lines that has moved from the fields of feudal China to the halls of internet fame? The answer is simple: Context. Anyone who consumes or creates content is fighting a constant battle for relevancy and context. I'm 37 years old, why am I receiving AARP junk mail? Would you expect your 65-year-old male customer to join your Pinterest campaign? How many unsubscribes did you get on your last email blast? The hashtag has scratched the surface on providing two-way, contextually relevant conversations. I can find out exactly how many #DaleJr fans are watching the next NASCAR race and have an instant communication channel open with them. Need a good recipe for #guacamole? There are thousands of pictures, posts, and stories to satisfy your appetite. With Facebook and more tools embracing hashtags and keyword searching we are gradually entering an era with stronger relevant conversation channels. The question is, how will we use them to help both consumers and creators? Now, if you'll excuse me I need to find a recipe for a good #pimento #cheese #sandwich and find #tickets to the next #NASCAR race.