Ten Years of the Hashtag

The hashtag is such a mainstay of internet culture these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when it didn’t exist. Indeed, when Twitter was launched  in 2006, its founders and developers had not yet devised an easy and seamless way to “group” conversations together under one topic.
It wasn’t until a year later, in 2007, when an early Twitter user named Chris Messina proposed a simple way to categorize conversations in a Tweet: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” was the simple Tweet that birthed a sensation. Ten years later, the concept is as mainstream as ever.
Today, hashtags are everywhere. On Twitter it’s reported that 125 million hashtags are shared daily. That doesn’t even take into account the number of hashtags that have spread across all other platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other social networks as a way of categorizing content and making it discoverable to others. And, of course, the hashtag isn’t just a digital phenomenon. It’s entered the cultural lexicon (for better or for worse) meaning it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like “hashtag first world problems” in everyday conversation.
Interestingly, while Messina invented the idea—rather than Jack Dorsey or someone from the Twitter product development team—he never got any official credit for it or made an attempt to patent it. That wasn’t because he got robbed of the opportunity or eclipsed by someone else taking credit, but rather, he knew that any attempt to secure it as “his” intellectual property would only slow the uptake of its usage. He told The Guardian: “They are born of the internet, and should be owned by no one. The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea.”
In the ten years of the hashtag, several usages of the internet style convention have caught on and are now as much a part of internet language as LOL. Here is a look at some of the most popular hashtags to arise in the past decade.
#FF: The “follow Friday” tradition started on Twitter, wherein users tag their favorite accounts to follow on Friday as a way of suggestion to others. Over time, it was shortened to the simple #FF, and is commonly seen as a weekly occurrence on the platform. Earlier in 2017, it was reported that #followfriday is the most popular hashtag on the network, with 539 million mentions.
#IceBucketChallenge: Sometimes hashtags arise intentionally, with the backing of an ad campaign behind them. They tend to only work when they are not too aligned with a brand and are able to take on a life of their own. When several American charities devoted to the disease of ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) began promoting the Ice bucket challenge on social media as a way to raise awareness and funds for the disease, the hashtag took off. The HuffingtonPost reported the hashtag was used more than 17 million times during the course of the awareness drive, bringing massive attention to a previously unknown disease.
#TBT: Though the hashtag was born on Twitter, it’s used just as much on Instagram these days. #Throwbackthursday or #tbt, is a common hashtag people use on Instagram to post older photos from childhood or a past event. It’s a socially acceptable way of saying, “I like this picture, have no excuse to share it, so I’ll wait until Thursday to do it.” It’s certainly a popular one, with nearly 400 million usages of the #TBT label on Instagram alone to date.