Rise of the Hashtag: How the Humble #Hash Sign Is Taking Over Social Media

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The @ sign needs to watch its back if it wants to hold on to its status as the most influential keyboard character of the Internet age. Yon hash sign (#) has a lean and hungry look.

In fact, Facebook’s long-awaited announcement earlier this month that hashtags are now active and clickable on Facebook means that hashtags now work on all of the major social media sites—including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, and more.

But it doesn’t stop there. Hashtags have become so pervasive that their reach extends beyond the online conversations that birthed them, popping up in TV shows and movies and even becoming a factor in political campaigns.

 

Colbert 

Figure 1: Comedian Stephen Colbert makes the hash sign with his fingers.

 

So this seems like a good time to look at the rise of the hashtag—from its humble beginnings on Twitter to its current status as a force in pop culture and politics, as well as how it functions as a tool for marketing and branding. We'll look at some tips for creating your own hashtags and using them effectively, too.

What the Heck Are Hashtags, Anyway?

A couple of days after Facebook announced the arrival of hashtags, a panicked friend of mine posted: "Since Facebook is the only social media I use, I've remained blissfully uneducated on all the mechanics of hashtags. Now that they're coming to Facebook, will I have to lose my innocence?"

I reassured her that hashtags are easy to understand—their bark is much worse than their bite. So let's start with a quick definition for those who, like my friend, have been holding on to their hashginity.

Hashtags are a way of organizing conversations and making them easier to follow. They work a little bit like keywords that give you an easy way to view recent postings on a specific topic—and a way to make sure your own contributions show up in that stream of postings, too.

At its simplest, a hashtag is simply a string of characters preceded by the hash sign: #. So, for example, #typography is a hashtag. #InDesign is a hashtag. #CreativePro is a hashtag.

When you see a hashtag on any of the sites where hashtags work, all you have to do is click on it and you'll be taken to a search listing that shows the most recent postings that include that tag.

Maybe you want to see what people outside your own set of friends are saying about the latest episode of #MadMen or #DoctorWho, or a developing news story like the current situation in #Syria, or what's happening at a conference like the #MacWorldExpo or #WWDC. You could click on those tags to get a sense of the buzz.

 

Kuler hash 

Figure 2: Clicking on the #Kuler hashtag in a tweet shows you what people are saying about Adobe's Kuler app on Twitter.

 

And of course, you could include those hashtags in your own postings if you want them to be seen in those searches—so using hashtags is a way of possibly increasing your audience.

By the way, in the US and Canada, we're more used to referring to the # character as the pound sign or the number sign—and in fact the Twitter user who first proposed the hashtag referred to it as "pound" in his now-legendary tweet (more on that later). But outside of North America, it's predominantly known as the hash sign, and the fact that the term hashtag became the standard nomenclature is a sign of the global nature of Internet conversations.

It should also be noted that hashtags are often used ironically, as a way of attaching a sotto voce comment or punch line at the end of a posting. Susan Orlean explained this usage so well in a 2010 New Yorker piece that I can't resist quoting it:

 

A typical commentary-type hashtag might look like this:

“Sarah Palin for President??!? #Iwouldratherhaveamoose”

This usage totally subverts the original purpose of the hashtag, since the likelihood of anyone searching the term “Iwouldratherhaveamoose” is next to zero. But that isn’t the point. This particular hashtaggery is weirdly amusing, because, for some reason, starting any phrase with a hashtag makes it look like it’s being muttered into a handkerchief; when you read it you feel like you’ve had an intimate moment in which the writer leaned over and whispered “I would rather have a moose!” in your ear.

 

It's arguable that this form of hashtag humor began a slow-motion shark jump around the time that Charlie Sheen started appending #Winning to his tweets. By the end of 2011, overuse of ironic hashtagging led one Gizmodo writer to declare—a bit melodramatically perhaps—that hashtags are "ruining the English language." (I myself would rank hashtags somewhere behind apostrophe abuse and overdependence on the word "awesome," but your mileage may vary.)

How Twitter Hatched the Hashtag

Hashtags were born on Twitter—and as a matter of fact, we can trace their origins back to a single tweet. In August of 2007, open source advocate Chris Messina posted a tweet that suggested using the pound sign as a way to organize group conversations on Twitter.

 

 Chris Messina

Figure 3: The tweet from 2007 that started it all.

 

Messina was inspired to nominate the pound sign for this job because of its role in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) conversations, where it was used to denote IRC channels that are available across an entire network.

Hashtags quickly took off — proving themselves to be a simple, versatile, and frequently entertaining addition to Twitter's set of communication tools. Messina said in a Quora posting a few years later that he "never imagined hashtags would catch on as they did"—and that in fact, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams had told him that hashtags were too "nerdy" to ever take off. (File that prediction alongside "Guitar groups are on the way out.")

It may even be possible that the nerdiness of hashtags was part of their success. In their early days, they functioned as a kind of shibboleth that said, "Yes, I speak fluent Twitter."

At any rate, in 2009 Twitter recognized the popularity and usefulness of hashtags by making them clickable in its interface—so that instead of having to manually search for them, users could simply click on a hashtag in any tweet to be shown a listing of other tweets containing that tag.

By 2010, Twitter had begun displaying a list of "trending topics," featuring a constantly updated roundup of the most frequently cited hashtags (along with other popular words and phrases). Once a hashtag showed up in the Trending Topics box, its use would generally snowball for a while as other users decided to hop on the hashwagon.

 

 trending topics

Figure 4: The Trending Topics box on Twitter.

 

From there, hashtags began metastasizing to other social media sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, where they work the same way—clicking a hashtag links you to search results for other public postings that contain that tag.

The hashtag continued its relentless march across the Internet until Facebook was the last holdout among the major social media players. Although you could find plenty of hashtags on your Facebook home page, in tweets that had been reposted from Twitter—or even in Facebook-native postings that used them ironically—they appeared in plain text, and clicking them produced no results.

But eventually, #resistance proved to be #futile. Rumors that Facebook was testing clickable hashtags in its News Feed began to surface earlier this year, and the official announcement came on June 12.

Now that the switch has been thrown, typing a hashtag into Facebook's search field even brings up a special search icon to indicate a hashtag—and clicking on that hashtag result takes you to a view of the News Feed where you can post to that hashtag's conversation without having to retype it.

 

 hashtag search

Figure 5: Searching a hashtag on Facebook — the top result is clearly labeled as a hashtag.

 

Hashtags in Pop Culture and Politics

One reliable measure for the influence of any trend is the extent to which latenight TV comedians mine it for material. By that yardstick, hashtags are riding high.

Late Night host Jimmy Fallon currently uses hashtags to effectively crowdsource comedy, generating audience-submitted jokes for a weekly feature called "Late Night Hashtags." He posts a hashtag on Twitter and asks his audience to submit funny tweets based around that topic. With the power of Fallon's TV platform behind them, they quickly become trending topics—and Fallon then reads some of the best submissions on the air. Here's what he got for the hashtag #MyDoctorIsWeird:

Always ahead of the curve, Stephen Colbert was an early adopter of hashtag humor, using them as tool to mercilessly skewer politicians. After Arizona Senator John Kyl erroneously claimed that abortion was "90% of what Planned Parenthood does," and then backtracked in the face of criticism by saying it was "not intended to be factual statement," Colbert responded by tweeting a series of colorful non-facts about Kyl using the hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement — and encouraged his fans to join in the fun. 

Colbert also had fun lampooning Senator Chuck Grassley for his famously incomprehensible tweeting style (which Colbert compared to "avant garde, stream of consciousness poetry") by launching the hashtag #IGotTheTweetsLikeGrassley. 

Oh, and there's even a video of Colbert explaining hashtags to Bill Clinton. 

Speaking of politics, hashtags have played a significant role in political activism as well. One early example of their potential came when they were used to help spread information during the Iranian election protests (aka the "Green Revolution") in late 2009 and early 2010. 

On the domestic front, in late 2011 the Obama administration used the hashtag #40dollars to draw attention to the debate over the payroll tax cut. In reference to the $40 that workers would lose per paycheck, on average, if the payroll tax cut were eliminated, the official White House Twitter account posted a tweet asking "What does #40 dollars mean to you?" According to Mashable, the tweet drew more than 17,000 heated responses, and sent the GOP into retreat on the issue.

Hashtags for Sale: Marketing and Branding

It didn't take the business world long to grasp the promotional possibilities of hashtags. After all, hashtags have proven to be a powerful way of a focusing attention on a particular topic, and starting a conversation around it — which is obviously an attractive goal for marketers.

These days, organizations of all kinds regularly create special hashtags to accompany promotional campaigns, and as one of its advertising options Twitter allows businesses to sponsor hashtags so that they appear at the top of the Trending Topics box.

Of course, there are potential pitfalls to this approach. Social media users have a strong rebellious streak, and if they don't like what's being advertised, they can be very, um, vocal about it.

McDonald's found this out the hard way with one of their early attempts at promoting a hashtag, in a now-legendary incident that took place in early 2012. McDonald's promoted the hashtag #McDStories, intending to showcase positive stories from their suppliers.

Instead, Twitter users responded with a steady stream of snarky remarks, such as "One time I walked into McDonald's and I could smell Type 2 diabetes floating in the air and I threw up," cheerily punctuated with the #McDStories hashtag. 

 

mcdonald's 

Figure 6: An example of the backlash (backhash?) to the #McDStories campaign.

 

Commenting on the campaign itself, another user wrote: "These #McDStories never get old, kinda like a box of McDonald's 10 piece Chicken McNuggets left in the sun for a week." The whole episode led Forbes to remark that the hashtag had turned into a "bashtag."

On the other hand, hashtag campaigns that appeal to users' sensibilities — by using humor or inspiration effectively, or tying in with an issue people care about — are more likely to be received enthusiastically.

For Father's Day this year, Heineken sponsored the hashtag #DadJokes, inviting their followers to tweet their favorite jokes in the style of dads everywhere. This may have been inspired by the #DadQuotes hashtag Jimmy Fallon launched a few days earlier. If so, it was a savvy tip of the cap.

 

 Heineken

Figure 7: Heineken promoted this tweet as part of its #DadJokes campaign for Father's Day.

 

One of the best examples of a successful hashtag campaign took place in 2011, when Edge shaving gel managed to generate a lot of buzz — and goodwill from customers — with its #soirritating hashtag. Noticing that Twitter users loved to tweet about what was getting under their skin, the Edge team came up with a strategy of responding to irritated tweets with soothing acts of kindness.

 During the course of the campaign, users who appended the #soirritating hashtag to their gripes got all kinds of nice surprises, courtesy of Edge. A user who was irritated by running out of cereal was sent several large boxes of it. Another user tweeted that her husband never wore his hearing aids, so the Edge team sent her a megaphone. Others were sent everything from videos of dancing pandas to high-value items like iPads, MacBook Pros, and expensive game tickets.

Don't Make a Hash of Yourself: Tips for Using Hashtags Effectively

This is possibly the most important tip regarding hashtags: Use them sparingly. You definitely don't want to catch yourself posting this kind of thing:

#I need a #snack! Maybe #potato #chips or #Doritos or
even something #healthy like an #apple or #V8 or
#California #raisins. 

... which is not only visually unattractive, but comes off as looking desperate for attention. Ultimately, the more hashtags you use, the less likely anyone is to click on them. In fact, as early as 2010 there were reports that Google evaluates tweets containing hash tags as “lower in quality” — possibly because of postings like the one above. 

So: The best approach is to limit yourself to one or two hashtags per posting, and try not to use them in every single posting.

 

overhashed tweet 

Figure 8: Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook's Journalism Program Manager, demonstrates what not to do.

 

Next, beware the pitfalls of ambiguity. Sometimes the lack of spacing between words in a longer hashtag can cause confusion.

When Margaret Thatcher passed away earlier this year, the hashtag #nowthatchersdead (for "Now Thatcher's dead") quickly surfaced in Twitter's trending topics box. Unfortunately, some users misread the hashtag as "Now that Cher's dead," leading to a series of confused tweets expressing shock and dismay over the loss of Sonny's better half. (Happily, as of this writing Cher is still with us.)

 

 Cher's Dead

Figure 9: A few of the confused tweets from those who misunderstood the #nowthatchersdead hashtag.

 

The lesson here is that it's always a good idea to double-check your hashtags for unintentional double-entendres. (Fans of Arrested Development fans might recognize this as the same problem Tobias Fünke tends to have with business cards and license plates. If he weren't fictional, I'd suspect him of being the originator of #nowthatchersdead.)

Hatching Your Own Promotional Hashtags

When you're getting ready to launch a promotional hashtag of your own, remember to keep it short—conserving characters will help more people fit it into their tweets. The harder it is to shoehorn a hashtag into the 140-character limit, the less likely users are to adopt it. (This may be slightly less of a concern on Facebook or Google+, #buttheresstillapointwhereahashtagbecomestoounwieldytobeviable.)

Next, focus on making it fun and memorable—something that will jump out at users and make then want to click if they see it in the Trending Topics box. The #DadJokes and #soirritating campaigns were successful in part because they have the right playful vibe. 

In some cases you might want to avoid reinventing the wheel—check to see if there's an existing hashtag in use that already does what you want it to do. If there is, it may be easier to hop on board an existing conversation than to try to build one from scratch. 

The downside to this is that if you use an existing hashtag, other users might be using it in ways you aren't expecting.

 

Entenmann's bakery fell into this trap in 2011 when it decided to use the hashtag #notguilty in a playful promotional way—apparently not realizing that Twitter users were already using that hashtag to express outrage over the Casey Anthony "not guilty" murder verdict.

 

 not guilty tweet

Figure 10: The tweet that got Entenmann's in trouble.

 

After a fair amount of criticism, Entenmann's was forced to apologize for the perceived insensitivity.

The moral: Before you deploy a hashtag for marketing purposes, always do a search to find out who else might be already using it—and how.

Dave Awl is the author of Facebook Me! from Peachpit Press. He currently teaches social media marketing classes, in addition to helping organizations large and small successfully develop and maintain their social media presences. For more info, visit his website at Awlpoint.com and Like the official Awlpoint page at Facebook.com/Awlpoint. 

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