Hashtags on Facebook 102: The history of the hashtag

Posted on 7/10/2013 by Lydia Baehr Public Relations in Industry News Public Relations tools Facebook Social Media Hashtags Tags

In our first post about hashtags, “Hashtags on Facebook 101: Here’s the how-to,” we explored how you can add hashtags to your Facebook posts to make them searchable. We researched the hashtag’s history for more clues on how hashtags might change how we use Facebook. Did you know that the hashtag can trace its origins to one inventor?

A portrait of Chris Messina, inventor of the hashtag, from his website, factoryjoe.com.

An article in The Atlantic titled “The Hashtag Is About to Roll Out to a Billion People, and This One Guy Invented It,” outlines a brief history of the hashtag's invention. Chris Messina is identified as inventor of the hashtag. He proposed the hashtag as a way to sift through content and spark conversation on Twitter. A blog post written by Messina in 2007 outlines the first proposal for the Twitter hashtag, although the idea of “tagging” content with keywords is older.

“I’m not at all convinced that groups […] are ultimately a good idea or a good fit for Twitter. But, I do think that there is certainly some merit to improving contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter. This is a rather messy proposal to that effect,” wrote Messina. 

Messina identified three ways in which his proposed hashtag would improve the Twitter user experience:

What we imagine Chris Messina's notes looked like when he invented the hashtag.
We like to imagine Messina’s notes looked something like this.

1.    Contextualization – Twitter users needed to be able to put a post in context. Hashtags provide valuable context clues as to how a post should be read. Hashtags may be used as a punch line to a joke or a clue as to how someone really feels about a news item. For example, a Tweet about long lines might be unimportant to most other users. But a user who Tweets about long lines with the hashtag #SXSW during the South by Southwest festival is conveying practical information about an event to other users.

2.    Content filtering – Twitter users needed to be able to filter the numerous tweets sent every day. Adding hashtags allows Twitter users to filter content by keywords. For example, searching for #Election2012 returns tweets about the 2012 Presidential Election and searching for #iPhone returns content about the iPhone.

3.    Exploratory serendipity – This criterion is harder to define, because it is based on emotion. What Messina refers to is the sense that we may find content we connect with and are interested in on Twitter. It also refers to our ability to be surprised and encounter new things that we do not have an existing connection to. This allows Twitter users to make new connections and find news about their interests. Users who love the TV show “Game of Thrones” may search for “#GameofThrones” and find other users who are interested in the show and share news about the actors or the latest episode. 

The process of forming ad hoc groups based on like-minded interests on Twitter is explained in detail by social media expert Stowe Boyd in a blog post titled “Hash Tags = Twitter Groupings.”

A portrait of Stowe Boyd, a social media theorist, from TEDXMidAtlantic.
A portrait of social media guru Stowe Boyd from TEDxMidAtlantic.

Twitter and Tumblr build cohort groups based on common interests through hashtags. Users are not required to use their real names and often follow each other based on their worldview more than real-life connections. Twitter is like a news ticker filled with headlines, observations and jokes.

The way we use hashtags on Facebook will be different from Twitter. In the final post of our series, “Hashtags on Facebook 103: How will Facebook change?,” we will explore how users interact with Facebook and how hashtags might change our behavior. We’ll also end our series with several unanswered questions, so come prepared to share your thoughts with the class!

Confused about using hashtags on Facebook? Check out "Hashtags on Facebook 101: Here's the how-to"!