The Hashtag is 10!
What the hashtag means to me 10 years after its invention
It may surprise you to learn that Twitter didn’t invent the hashtag. Indeed, the hashtag has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time before the hashtag. But indeed there was, and it was over ten years ago today.
On August 23, 2007 at 12:25PM PST, I tweeted a simple idea that would change how we use social media and communicate, possibly forever:
Two days later, I published a lengthy proposal clarifying my intention, with suggestions for how Twitter might adopt the idea, even though I never worked for Twitter. Instead, I was an early user and a fan, and a believer in the power of the internet coupled with free/libre technologies to bring people together. As it happened, Twitter didn’t really officially recognize the hashtag until July 15, 2011.
To learn more about the origin story of the hashtag, this interview that I gave to CNBC four years ago is a good primer.
Celebrating the 10th hashtagivarsary!
Here are 10 descriptions of what the hashtag means to me:
Free (as in freedom)
The hashtag is my gift to the internet community. I specifically didn’t want anyone to own the idea or be able to prevent others from using it — least of all any particular social media platform.
The hashtag is meant to be an open source, libre technology, like Firefox or WordPress (albeit, much less work went into it!).
Anyone can use a hashtag. It doesn’t take any special training, and you don’t need advanced technical skills. All you need is something to say, share, or show.
If there’s a conversational happening around a hashtag and you want to contribute, you can do so. You don’t need permission. Jump in.
If there’s a topic that you want to discuss, choose a hashtag that makes sense to you and get the conversation started. The only way to guarantee that it won’t take off is to never start. Share early and often, and do so with intention.
Although hashtags can be used for private use (I use them in my email subjects as well as to tag documents in the excellent Bear app), they offer their most value when used in social contexts. The original application of the hashtag was to make it easier for people attending events to share media, observations, and ideas with other attendees; this use case now extends to all manner of social and interest groups, and works regardless of the platform or media types being generated.
The act of participating in the flow of a hashtag commons is a political act and contributes attention currency to something that is important or meaningful to you.
Put another way: using a hashtag signifies a desire to join, connect, or speak your mind or your share perspective or experience. It says, “I exist, I am here, and I choose to express myself!”
As the pace of media creation and distribution accelerate, organically trending hashtags represent a gestalt lens on the collective psyche. The tags that trend or appear popular in search results drive participation, awareness, and as a consequence, shape the contents of millions of people’s thoughts.
Whenever you’ve seen or overheard a hashtag and decided to investigate further, your thoughts have been invaded by a meme — also known as a thought virus!
Due to the open nature of social media platforms, you can employ hashtags for common (#love), unconventional (#fromwhereIstand), utilitarian (#follow4follow), categorical (#16x9fordays), and emergent (#BlackLivesMatter) applications. You can speak them, or you can put them on billboards or TV shows or in movie trailers. Nothing about the format of the hashtag can or should deny unanticipated use cases. And that’s the point!
A hashtag is not a place and is not property (despite some ill-advised attempts to introduce controls on participation and use of certain tags). The lifespan of a hashtag lasts only as long as people animate it with their attention and contributions. Hashtags that no longer inspire participation gradually fade from the collective consciousness. This is a good and natural thing.
Even if hashtags can foment revolutions and galvanize popular uprisings, they need not only be used for serious communication. In fact, some of the best hashtags are fun (#icebucketchallenge), funny (#CareerEndingTwitterTypos, etc), or banal (#mlia). It’s true: the hashtag works hard, but it plays hard too!
I created the hashtag while I was working for myself, and not a big company. I wanted to give back to the internet community — in some small way—to repay all those who came before me and had contributed their time, effort, and love.
To me, it’s critical to point out that the success of the hashtag is anomalous in Silicon Valley. Its creation was not motivated by profit, but by a desire to make the web a better and more interesting place for everyone. Nor was the hashtag singularly my invention—numerous people contributed to it, including Stowe Boyd offering the term “hash tag” and Nate Ritter helping to demonstrate their use in disaster response.
So remember too that the success of the hashtag represents a different model for contributing to the world. Not everything worthy of pursuit must be driven by economic or capitalistic outcomes.
So now that I’ve shared my list, it’s your turn. Tweet what the hashtag means to you — or how it’s made a difference in your life (on Twitter, Instagram, or elsewhere). I look forward to seeing what y’all have to say!
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