The Hashtag: A History Deeper than Twitter

The hashtag has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the last decade. From Twitter to billboards, t-shirts to TV shows, the hashtag has found its way into everyone’s life in one way or another. This mysterious symbol has become a one of the most powerful tools in the marketing arsenal, but to understand the hashtag, one must look back to its origins.

Introducing: The Octothorpe

The exact origin of the hashtag has been researched far and wide, and experts have come to the conclusion that nobody is quite sure where its use began. Its integration into technology, however, has its roots in my home state of New Jersey. In the mid-1960s, Bell Laboratories, the innovators of the Touch Tone phone, sent researchers out across the country to find out which symbols the public would prefer to use in the new technology. The results of their market research produced the asterisk (*) and what we call the hashtag (#), both of which appeared on standard American typewriters.

shutterstock_87819007One of the first locations to be fully fitted with Bell’s new Touch Tone technology was the Mayo Clinic. When it was time to train the staff of the Mayo Clinic on using the new system, Bell’s Don McPherson coined the praise “octothorpe” to refer to the hashtag on the Touch Tone phones. It is said that McPherson came up with the name by combining the eight points “octo” and his favorite athlete, Olympian Jim Thorpe, to create a term that would be used throughout Bell Labs.

Please Press the Pound Key

Here’s where things get foggy. How the Octothorpe became commonly known as the pound symbol in the United States is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.

One theory is based upon the typewriter keyboard.  Typewriters made in the UK had the monetary symbol for pound (£) sharing the same key as the number 3. If you look at your modern day keyboard, you will see that our friend the hashtag also shares a key as the number 3. Coincidence?

shutterstock_110807639The second theory is built off of the weight abbreviation for pound, which is lb. Over time, the lb abbreviation would be written with a line through it in order to avoid confusion between a lower-case l and the number 1. If you look at the two side by side — 1l — the simi1arities are fairly evident. Did you see what I did there? The theory goes on to say that lb was eventually replaced by # since it took less time use when typing and because they looked similar.

In the mid-1980s the pound sign made its debut to the world of Touch Tone phone users. We can all recall a time, long, long ago, when we spent hours speaking to some of the first automated customer service systems, entering all sorts of numbers and letters, repeating words over and over as if we were speaking to an infant, and last but not least, pressing the pound key. Ah yes the good old days. The pound symbol was used by these systems as a separator between strings of numbers, which explains why everything always had to end with a pound key.

As I mentioned before, a pound in the UK means something different than a pound in the United States. So if the symbol for pound in the UK is £, then what did they call #? They called it a hash.

“Hashie” Hits the World Wide Web

The first appearance of hashtags on the Internet was in Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. Created in 1988, IRC is a network where users communicate to one another through channels, signified by the pound sign. #London would be a channel of people talking about London, #singles with single people, and so on and so forth. With the IRC community growing to almost half a million users, they needed a name for the titles of these channels, in which they decided on – you guessed it – the hashtag.

“how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”- @factoryjoe

A beautiful seven character Twitter hashtag was born. The user behind the tweet, Chris Messina, a social technology expert and long-time user of the IRC, suggested to Twitter that they adapt the hashtag practice to gather, categorize, and index discussions by the use of keywords preceded by a #. Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, told Messina that he didn’t think hashtags would catch on because of their technical approach. Boy was he wrong (and fired in 2011).

shutterstock_133521662#TwitterTakeover

The hashtag began to pick up popularity through 2008 and 2009, slowly being adopted by Twitter users around the world. President Barrack Obama used the hashtag #askobama during his successful 2008 campaign, as well as in 2009 during the Iranian protests. With the hashtag clearly picking up steam, Twitter finally reacted, and in 2009, began to hyperlink hashtags from Tweets to search results for the hashtag text. Once Twitter users were able to search for specific hashtags, their use skyrocketed.

As the popularity of Twitter took off over the last three years, other social networking sites have implemented hashtags as well. Youtube, Tumblr, Google+, Linkedin, Flickr and Instagram have all added hashtagging abilities to their sites, with similar success. The all mighty Facebook is the latest social network to introduce hashtags to status updates, pictures, and videos. With all of these hashtastic options, businesses and marketers have had a field day crafting up creative hashtags for their product or company.

Here are a few tips to make hashtags work for you, in 140 characters or less:

  • #keepitsimple – Users will remember a short hashtag, not a long one
  • #dont #tweet #like #this – You”ll get skipped right over by ever user, except 13 year old girls
  • #chooseyourmessage #wisely – Mcdonalds learned that the hard way with #McDStories
  • #searchforkeywords – Search through relevant hashtags in your target demographic to find popular tags
  • #promoteyourevents – look at #OccupyWallStreet as an example
  • #useaurlshortener – Bit.ly, TinyURL, etc. Pick your favorite.

So the next time see a friend with a “hashtag fail,” be sure to immediately correct them about their improper use of the pound symbol, or the hash, or the octothorpe, whichever you prefer.

A hashtag is a powerful tool to market your business, product, service, or message, but needs to be approached with a specific strategy in mind that will portray your brand in the exact light that you would like it to be. Be creative and courageous with your hashtag, and you could be the next big trending topic!

Do you have any favorite hashtags to use? Or do you really hate when people #use #hashtags #like #this and want to talk about it? Leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to craft up a response in 140 characters or less.

Craving more history? Check out The Rise of Search Engines

Sources

About the author

Joe Fortunato

Joe Fortunato is a content marketer at CopyPress and is coming up on one year with the company. He went to Saint Leo University, where he studied Marketing. His hobbies include playing golf and brass instruments, cooking ethnic foods, and bass fishing. To find more of Joe’s published work, check out his Twitter profile.

3 Comments

  • I’m in Australia, and we’ve known the symbol # as ‘hash’ since forever.
    When twitter came out with hashtags my reasoning for the name was that it’s a tag with a hash, ie. hash-tag. makes sense.
    Reading your article calling the symbol # hashtag, is surprising because I’ve only ever known the symbol # to be called hash. When used on twitter with a tag following (ie. #twitter), THAT is a hash-tag.
    Are we seriously so caught up in twitter that we’ve gone and re-named the hash symbol hashtag? Am I unaware of a de-evolution of the English language happening in the USA or did you just miss that in your research?

    • Hi Rebecca,

      It seems to be a pop culture/big media driven change of meaning for the # symbol. The biggest spot I’ve noticed this “de-evolution” is on TV shows, where they call for viewers to send tweets to the show using a hash tag. The term has been adapted mostly by the younger crowd, leaving the 40+ crowd scratching their head, wondering what in the world a hash tag is. Thanks for the comment!

      Joe

      • No, the request for TV shows to use a hash- tag is correct. They’re asking you to use the convention of a # with the name of their show. ie. #tvshowname. That 2 part thing is a hash-tag.
        Calling the symbol # on its own hashtag is wrong. It is called hash.

        FYI – I’m a gen-Y. Thanks for the assumption that I must be over 40 though.

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