Looking back on 10 years (and more) of the hashtag

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This week marks another social media milestone that makes me think about how far we have come in a space that is still considered “new” by many people.

The hashtag (as we now know it) turns 10 this week. And while it is closely associated with Twitter, it was not part of the original Twitter platform, nor was developed by the Twitter organisation itself.

Twitter is somewhat of a social media “sand pit”, where many of its best know features – such as hashtags and retweets – were actually developed by the community.

The hashtag was fittingly proposed in a tweet, by Silicon Valley techie and Twitter user Chris Messina, who suggested its use as a way to label and collect discussions.

Chris pitched the idea to Twitter, and according to an interview he gave to BNN, Twitter said it was:

“a terrible, stupid idea.”

Chris persevered though, and gained supporters, including blogger Stowe Boyd, who was the first to refer to the suggestion as a “hash tag”.

The first main use of it on the platform then occurred during the San Diego Fire (#SanDiegoFire) in October 2007, to group messages and updates about the event.

The rest, as they say, is history.

There is more history to it though…

While this is how use of the hashtag in social media first evolved, it has a longer history in technology and the internet. The hash symbol (also known as the pound symbol) was used on touch tone telephone, and was actually referred to as an “octothorpe” by Don McPherson from Bell Laboratories, who was responsible for training to use the new Touch Tone technology.

Hashtags then appeared on the internet within Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC was created in 1998 and was a network of users who communicated through topic channels identified by the pound – or hash – symbol.

#London would be a channel of people talking about London, #singles with single people, and so on and so forth.

Source: Copypress

This use is very similar to how we use hashtags today, to identify the “topic” of our social media updates, that groups them with other updates that use the same tag, allowing people to browse the updates of an unrelated group of people, that are all about the same topic.

As I’ve previously written on this topic, primarily hashtags are used to collate content on a particular topic, however they have also evolved to provide context to an update, and help deliver an underlying message.

Hashtags continue to provide confusion for many people though, and I recall being asked insistently once: “But where do the hashtags go!?”

The popularity and use of hashtags continues to grow, with their use extending from Twitter to many other social media channels, including Youtube, Tumblr, Google+, Linkedin, Flickr, Instagram, and – to the annoyance of many of us purists – Facebook.

Their popularity and use have grown such that some hashtags have been overwhelmed by spam, and led to many hashtags being “banned” on Instagram.

Hashtags are still an incredibly useful tool however, for increasing the reach of your own content updates, and connecting you with other users and updates who are interested in similar topics.

Remember, it’s “social” media, a two-way conversation. It’s not all about what hashtags you can use to try and push your message further.

Tips for using hashtags on social media

Search for and select a range of relevant hashtags

There are a range of tools that can be used to help search for relevant hashtags in your field, as well as native searches within many of the tools themselves.

Like any good brainstorming, think broadly.

Look at what other updates are posted with the tags, and whether they are relevant to the types of updates you are sharing (or does the hashtag have another intention or message).

I like to research hashtags on a number of different levels, and picture them growing outwards in concentric circles to help build the message and grow the reach:

  1. Brand hashtags (see more below); terms specifically related to your brand
  2. Industry hashtags; terms specifically related to the industry your update relates to, e.g. #construction #solarenergy #technology
  3. Specific topic/content hashtags: terms that relate to the specific content of your update, that is often a specific area of your industry, e.g. #ai (artificial intelligence) #vr (virtual reality)
  4. Event hashtags; if your updates relate to an event, there may be a relevant event tag
  5. etchashtag research strategy

You may also be interested in: 5 places to find hashtags for Instagram posts (Impactiv8)

Limit use to relevant hashtags only

As mentioned, an unfortunate evolution of hashtags is their overuse and often unrelated use.

Let’s aim to make the internet a better place, and aim to limit use to ideally 1-3 of the most relevant hashtags.

For a platform like Instagram (where you can use up to 30 hashtags per update) it is often best to add a long list of relevant terms to the first comment. This keeps the original update neater, and the hashtags can be deleted at a later date after the main reach and engagement has been achieved.

Format hashtags correctly

It bugs me no end when hashtags are formatted incorrectly! A few golden rules:

  • Hashtags cannot have spaces in them. Even a phrase must be written as a single word to group the term together, e.g. #SanDiegoFire not #San Diego Fire (the only hashtag in that last example is “#San”)
  • Hashtags are not case sensitive, so when using a multi-word tag, using initial capital letters can help differentiate words, however #SanDiegoFire and #sandiegofire are essentially the same, and updates that use either of these variations (and others, providing the characters used are exactly the same) will group together.
  • Multiple hashtags should have spaces between them, i.e. #breakfast #eggs #yummy not #breakfast#eggs#yummy
  • Hashtags can only use letters and numbers, not punctuation symbols. Punctuation will “break” a hashtag. So no apostrophes or ampersands. Simply drop apostrophes, e.g. #dontuseappostrophes and change ampersands (&) to and, e.g. #baconandeggs not #bacon&eggs

#Do #Not #Tag #Almost #Every #Word #In #Your #Update

This looks really spammy and is really hard to read. Don’t do it.

Create “branded” hashtags when relevant

There is a lot of emphasis on brands to “own” a hashtag, but you cannot “own” one.

They are public property, that anyone can use (and abuse).

While many marketers and ad agencies go to great lengths to coin an amazing hashtag, often simplest is best.

Hashtagging the business name often works better than hashtagging a tagline or sales message, which can look salesy and not be natural for the user.

When in doubt, look to your online community.

What are they using? What tag or phrase will flow best in the type of updates they are likely to share?

Just as per the reason they evolved, hashtags should be useful, and something people WANT to use.

Don’t just tag the hashtags, click on the hashtags!

Remember, it’s social!

As well as using relevant hashtags in your own updates, search for and click on those used by others that you are interested in.

Especially in channels where they are relatively new, such as LinkedIn.

You might be surprised by what new, interesting content – or people – you find.

 

Over to you!

What other tips or stories do you have about using hashtags? Let me know in the comments!

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