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Facebook’s introduction of the hashtag (#) a couple of months back suggests they aren’t going anywhere. But what are they? How are they used today?
Hashtags are most commonly associated nowadays with Twitter, but they’re used elsewhere in blogs and other social networks. They’re used now to identify a topic of interest and help people to search for it. Every tweet that shares the same hashtag will relate to a common topic. It might be a news story, an event, a thing (like food) or just a funny topic. There are no real rules for creating them: they can pretty much relate to anything.
For instance, if you added the hashtag #bananas to your tweet, it would appear in the list of tweets relating to bananas…if people were so inclined to search for that word.
The idea of tagging popular words or topics goes back to the 80s, and a platform called Internet Relay Chat (sometimes abbreviated as IRC). They were used to group messages, images and videos into categories, and allow people to find everything associated with a certain topic.
This method of grouping supposedly gained the name “hashtag” back in 2007. A few different people are credited with creating hashtags, or coining the term. At the time, the city of San Diego was being attacked by wildfires. A resident of San Diego, Nate Ridder, added the phrase #sandiegofire to the end of his blog posts. The aim was to inform people around the world of the fires. Social technology Chris Messina is also supposed to posted the first hashtag, #barcamp, on Twitter in August 2007. However, they were officially named hashtags by blogger Stowe Boyd in a blog post in the same year.
Twitter formally adopted hashtags two years later. Anything with # in front of it became hyperlinked: later, Twitter introduced “Trending Topics”: the most popular hashtags appeared on the homepage. Hashtags are used to this day, by educators, institutions, businesses, and ordinary people.
Why use hashtags?
They’re useful on both a personal and business level. For keeping your family abreast of changes to your life, you can use hashtags to group certain events together more elegantly than you can with, say, simple status updates. Businesses can incorporate popular hashtags into their social media operations, to raise awareness of what they’re up to.
However, using hashtags is not without its problems. For starters, you don’t have any real control over their use. You can’t own them and you can’t prevent people from turning them against you by linking your hashtag to derogatory or negative tweets.
Secondly, it’s not necessarily easy to monetise tweets. People can use hashtags just to share an opinion, organise news stories, or add humour to a tweet without the intention of it becoming something lots of people use.
In short, while hashtags can be an unstable and unpredictable feature, they are also an incredibly popular one and an essential part of many social media experiences.