Our friend the hashtag

November 13th, 2013 in Social Media 3 minute read

These days, the hashtag is our friend. We use it to join in the conversation on Twitter, we see it on adverts, television programmes, printed on shop windows, and we’ve even adopted it into our vocabulary: “Did you see Lady Gaga on X Factor on Saturday? Hashtag awkward…” But the hashtag hasn’t always been there to guide us through the delights and pitfalls of Instagram-ing what we had for lunch (#nomnom #foodporn). It had its humble beginnings back in the 80s…

The hashtag was first used in 1988 on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). It was used then much as it is today: for grouping messages, images, content, and video into categories. The purpose: so users could search hashtags and get all the relevant content associated with them. The hashtag had an alter ego back in those days though; in America this symbol: # is known as a pound sign. Cue international confusion… The name “hashtag” was coined in 2007 by Californian blogger Stowe Boyd, and by June 2009 Twitter hashtags were formally adopted and anything with a # in front of it became hyper-linked and searchable! The rest of the internet quickly caught the bug, and today we use hashtags all over Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Gawker, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr.

So originally, clicking on a hashtag showed all the tweets which included that particular tag; useful when Twitter’s search capabilities weren’t so developed. Hashtags increased the visibility of a message, and allowed for community discussion. Now, as we know, the hashtag is increasingly likely to be used as a sort of P.S. to add extra context to your message.  For instance, if you were dissatisfied with your recent iPad purchase, rather than tweet: “The resolution on my new #iPad is complete rubbish”, the hashtag could alternatively be used to more emphatically express your dissatisfaction! : “This resolution is completely pants #fail #neverbuyanipadair #ihateapple #whyme #ipadsarerubbish #IcannotexpresshowangryIamrightnow”. The hashtag doesn’t just let us find what others are saying, it gives us meaning!

BUT, you don’t own them! There are no rules or guidelines; when you add the hash symbol before a word, anyone else can use it and exploit it. It becomes difficult, especially in business, if it’s hijacked and taken out of its intended context. For example: McDonalds started a #McDStories hashtag that went viral. Whilst some customers happily tweeted away about their lovely, positive, delicious McDonalds experiences, 1,500 stories came in from users complaining about food poisoning, bad employees and various other complaints! Only 2% of the Tweets that came in were negative, but the press they got from it was enough cause a major backlash.

Where does the hashtag stand today? Since Facebook adopted the hashtag this year the little symbol has never been more important. With 15% of the world’s population actively using Facebook, this is an amazing opportunity for businesses and individuals alike to start utilising their hashtags effectively. The Facebook hashtag helps people with niche interests find each other, amplifies a brand by giving people an easy way to share information about a product, allows you to cross various social platforms with the same hashtag and widens your potential audience from which to capture new fans and potential leads!

So essentially, we should all be embracing the hashtag. It’s difficult to calculate just how many times the beloved # sign is used each day, it might even be impossible, but we do know that Twitter users post 400 million tweets a day. If just half of those contain a #, we’re talking at least 200 million hashtags flying around cyberspace right at this moment. It’s come a long way since 1988, and the hashtag’s importance both culturally and in terms of business is only going to grow!

To see the hashtags we’re using at Zeal, you can always follow us on @wehavezeal!

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