Today, it is almost impossible to exist in our society without at least a basic understanding of the hash tag, how to use it and what it does. But where did the hash tag come from? Why do we love it so much, and how has it changed the way we communicate? On August 23rd 2007, Chris Messina first suggested the use of the pound symbol on Twitter, tweeting “How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” While it was another two years before Twitter officially adopted the hash tag, adding it’s hyperlink feature in 2009, the hash tag has been organizing and bringing information together since it’s first Twitter use in 2007 (Brown, 2013). A decade later hash tags are used across media platforms to revolutionize political movements, crowd fund various campaigns, bring awareness to worldwide news in real time, build interest based communities online, and even change the way we speak to one another offline.
In October 2007, shortly after the hash tag’s first August 2007 use, a massive wildfire ripped through San Diego. In order to quickly spread updates pertaining to the wildfire, the hash tag #sandiegofire emerged, as news outlets came to understand that searchable trends had the power of mass distribution. For the first time ever, Twitter users took to the hash tag to consolidate and strengthen the sharing of associated information. Since then, we have seen this distribution of news by hash tag on a much larger scale. In 2012, #Sandy following Hurricane Sandy was used 7,200,000 times according to Twitter. But more importantly, researchers from the journal Science Advances (Kryvasheyeu et al., 2016) found that the combination of hash tag and location services “can be used for rapid assessment of damage caused by large-scale disaster.” This ability to apply the use of the hash tag for a real life impact points to the role that social media has taken as integral to our communication system.
Similarly, political action groups such as Black Lives Matter have used the hash tag as centerpieces of their strategy to spread group awareness. The Use of the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter has not only spread awareness online (according to Anderson and Hitlin (2016) used on Twitter over 12,000,000 times), but has played a role in the organization of political demonstrations and confrontation of political leaders (Ross, 2015). In this way, the hash tag has transformed organization of online information to organization of real life activism.
By 2014, Twitter users (as well as Facebook and Instagram) took to the hash tag for crowd funding with the ALS ice bucket challenge. #IceBucketChallenge became one of the most popular hash tags ever, raising millions of dollars for research on Lou Gehrig’s disease, ultimately leading to the discovery of associated genes and the development of therapies. The hash tag allowed news of the Ice Bucket Challenge to ‘trend,’ spreading awareness on such a massive scale that enabled ALS to raise so much money.
Conversely, hashtag critics explain hash tag campaigns as ‘slacktivism.’ Critics argue that the ability to back a cause by a simple tweet, reduces the push for offline activism, as individuals feel they have fulfilled their role online. According to USA Today (Anschuetz, 2015), “In 2014, a Digital Activism study conducted by Cone Communications reported 75% of Millennials uses social media to discuss issues they care about. The same study also found that 58% of Americans considers tweeting information about issues an effective form of advocacy or support.” This data implies that a massive portion of social media activists see online activism as a legitimate means of social participation, suggesting that offline participation may be left as a less important proponent of social change. This is worrisome for those who fear the link between online activism and real life activism is weak.
Today, the hash tag has become engrained in our culture in a variety of ways. It has taken to American English vernacular. The word hashtag is recognized and defined by the Oxford dictionary, as “a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic.” The recognition legitimizes hash tag’s use as common language in which individuals use “hashtag (blank)” conversationally offline to denote significance or show cultural competence without syntactic context. The hash tag’s exponential growth over the past decade has allowed for the development of cultural norms surrounding its usage pertaining to individual social media platforms. Too many hash tags are associated with spam, while clever use of hash tags can be seen as legitimate media and advertising tactics for major corporations. A recent video made my Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake pokes fun at the conversational use of the hashtag, pointing to its overuse and degradation of the English Language.
In conclusion, a decade of the hashtag has brought about both negative and positive changes in communication systems, but nevertheless has transformed the way we interact on and offline. The hashtag has consolidated and organized communication, generating the ability to content share, connect, crowd share, crowd fund, and even critique. With Twitter as a leader, the hash tag’s usage continues only to grow, constantly signifying new cultural meaning. It is only fair to assume that hash tag’s #SecondDecade will bring about more #Change.
Writer: Abby Shuster, University of Vermont.
Advisor: Dr. Rob Williams, University of Vermont.
Anderson, M., & Hitlin, P. (2016, August 15). 3. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter emerges: Social activism on Twitter. Retrieved April 04, 2017.
Anschuetz, N. (2015, October 26). Is hashtag-based activism all talk, no action? Retrieved April 04, 2017.
Brown, H. (2013, November 7). Good Question: How Did The Pound Sign Become A Hashtag? Retrieved April 04, 2017.
#Hashtag This: How the Twitter Hashtag Caught Fire in San Diego. (2014, December 19). Retrieved April 04, 2017.
Kryvasheyeu, Y., Chen, H., Obradovich4, N., Moro, E., Van Hentenryck, P., Fowler, J., & Cebrian, M. (2016). Rapid assessment of disaster damage using social media activity [Abstract]. Science Advances,2(3). doi:10.1126/sciadv.1500779
Ross, J. (2015, August 19). How Black Lives Matter moved from a hashtag to a real political force. Retrieved April 04, 2017.
Sichynsky, T. (2016, March 21). These 10 Twitter hashtags changed the way we talk about social issues. Retrieved April 04, 2017.