Social media: #HappyBirthday, hashtag!
Twitter’s “most iconic feature” just celebrated a major milestone, said Karissa Bell in Mashable.com. Ten years ago last week, the hashtag—formerly known as the lowly pound sign—was first used on the social network, by Chris Messina, then a Google product designer. Messina, who had attended the South by Southwest conference and was looking for ways to make it easy for attendees to find each other, tweeted out “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp?” A decade later, the hashtag has evolved into “a part of pop culture,” said Terry Collins in CNET.com. From # ThrowbackThursday to #GameOfThrones, some 125 million hashtags are shared every day on Twitter, and the sign has been adopted by tens of millions of users on Facebook, Tumblr, Slack, and Instagram. It’s even infiltrated our vernacular, punctuating jokes and everyday chats. “You may have a hard time envisioning conversations on social media these days that don’t have a #hashtag.”
Along the way, some viral hashtags have become “literally lifechanging,” said Aja Romano in Vox.com. The #IceBucket Challenge craze, which raised tens of millions of dollars for ALS research in 2014, helped “unite the internet around a moment of real-life activism.” Hashtags have also given communities a voice and amplified their causes: Look no further than the Arab Spring, which relied on hashtags like #egypt and #jan25 to organize demonstrations across the region and get real-time updates to the outside world. “The #Black LivesMatter movement started, developed, and organized on Twitter,” said Meghann Farnsworth in Recode.net. Hashtags like #JeSuisCharlie, after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre, and #BringBackOurGirls, referring to the 2014 abduction of hundreds of Nigerian girls, helped unite users around the world in “hashtag activism” campaigns. Then there is President Trump, “who has probably used the hashtag more prolifically than any politician before him,” with #MAGA and #FakeNews used to rally his base.
Of course, most hashtags aren’t nearly so serious or political, said Madison Malone Kircher in NYMag.com. Over the past few years, they’ve been increasingly co-opted by brands and used “to flag sponsored content.” But if there is one constituency that is truly devoted to hashtags, it’s superfans. This year, the most popular hashtag has been #BTSBBMAS, which aimed to get the Korean- pop band BTS a trophy at the Billboard Music Awards, with more than 300 million tweets. In fact, “of the most-used hashtags over the past 10 years, five of them—#MTVHottest, #MTVStars, #KCA, #iHeartAwards, #FanArmy—involved fans tweeting about awards shows.” #BlackLivesMatter might get the headlines, but it’s groups like Justin Bieber’s #Beliebers who keep the hashtag movement alive. “#TheMoreYouKnow.”
Kristofer Cheng/The New York Times/Redux, Science Robotics ■