Friday 24 January 2020

#BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie, #marref - The evolution of the hashtag 10 years on

A decade ago today, a US social media guru first used the # symbol in a bid to help users navigate Twitter

Sign of the times: A protestor with a #blacklivesmatter sign on O'Connell Street
Sign of the times: A protestor with a #blacklivesmatter sign on O'Connell Street

Tanya Sweeney

The name Chris Messina may not mean much to most people, but it's fair to argue that without him, social media would look entirely different.

Ten years ago today, the social technology expert - ironically, a former Google/Uber lead developer - was wondering how to point certain Twitter users to topics of interest, and he concluded that tagging subjects would be the way to do it.

"How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp?" he suggested.

Later, he told Wired magazine: "Ten years ago, we were at South by Southwest in Austin when Twitter was really blowing up. But there were a lot of people back in San Francisco frustrated that their Twitter feeds were full of stories from Austin that were not relevant to them. There was no way of organising tweets so you knew what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

#Oscarssowhite went viral
#Oscarssowhite went viral

"It took a few months to get going. I believe it was October before the hashtag had its first breakout success."

Twitter, astonishingly, was slow out of the blocks to officially endorse the use of the hashtag, but by 2009 the Twitter community ensured the practice took off.

Suddenly, it became easier to group, and find, the tweets and posts pertaining to a certain topic. That year, the first group of people to widely use the hashtag to impressive effect were those involved in the San Diego forest fires.

The #sandiegofire helped people on Twitter to let friends know they were safe, to disseminate information and to offer help. Others, like those involved in the 2009 Iranian election protests, used hashtags to mobilise certain political groups and to organise protests and movements.

On a lighter note, the hashtag helped certain moments of frivolity make their way into everyone's timelines (remember #TheDress, which boasted more than 4.4 million tweets in two days?). Suddenly, the hashtag had come up in the world. Currently, 125 million hashtags are tweeted every day. Among the biggest in film and TV are #TheWalkingDead and #StarWars, while the #WorldCup remains a behemoth for sports fans.

Twitter's great rivals Facebook added hashtag support in 2013, while Instagram have used the hashtag to wondrous effect. In fact, they have a few of their own dedicated hashtags on the photo-sharing website, like #ThrowbackThursday (if you wanted to post old photos). Proving that the hashtag has become a ubiquitous part of life, the word was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014.

#Oscarssowhite went viral
#Oscarssowhite went viral

Companies and individuals have been trying to figure out how to make a hashtag campaign take off with the same momentum as #ImWithHer, #latelateshow or #OscarsSoWhite.

It's an imprecise science: part right place, right time, part salient point. April Reign is credited as the person who kick-started the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015, as a way for people to register their unhappiness at the lack of diversity among that year's Oscar nominations.

"There was no way for me to know that a single tweet I made from my family room in January of 2015 would have the impact that it has," she told NPR. "And I'm not sure anyone ever really knows what hashtag is going to become viral until it does. The very first tweet was "#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair," and I was just being sort of cheeky and frustrated with what I was watching on the Oscar nominations and it just took off from there."

Dave Byrne, Creative Director at Irish youth marketing agency Thinkhouse, says: "Hashtags are a great way to group conversations, but often it's not the hashtag itself that takes off as a movement, it's the conversation behind it that's happening at just the right time.


"For instance, when someone is talking about 'Repealing the 8th' (amendment) on Twitter, the hashtag is there largely to give the tweet some context. The people interested in repealing the eighth have had to group together to get their standpoint heard, and this is the easiest way to do it."

And, of course, when a conversation is established and gathers momentum online, people want to become a part of the perceived 'movement'.

Before long, using a hashtag to trend on social media with the right bon mot became a multi-billion euro industry worldwide. And the hashtag fully came into its own when corporate giants started to use it as a way to engage with customers and foster brand loyalty.

According to research from Buddy Media, tweets with hashtags receive twice as much engagement as those that don't. Yet businesses' attempts to get their hashtags trending achieve varying degrees of success. And when it comes to creating hashtag campaigns, Byrne advises users to exercise caution: "Recently in the UK, a Lotto campaign saw UK Olympic stars hold up blank canvases so people could create their own greetings. In effect, the hashtag got hijacked and people manipulated technology to create ride messages with the signs. From our perspective of working in the brand space, we're cautious about where we put a branded hashtag. You want to click into a conversation that is healthy and exciting. You want a wealth of content at your fingertips without it being overly branded."

Individuals, meanwhile, have managed to create a lucrative career for themselves on Instagram with strategic use of hashtags.

"I've been obsessed with the fitness movement on Instagram, where a hashtag like #fitfam has turned young people literally into celebrities," notes Byrne. "Instagram has become a cluster of communities governed by these hashtags. It's great that young people have the opportunity to be entrepreneurial like this and the hashtag is very much key to their success."

Ten years in, and it's fair to say that Twitter best gives us a snapshot of the stuff that makes us tick. In Ireland in 2016, #COYBIG and #GE2016 featured heavily in the end-of-year list of most used hashtags, while #GameOfThrones, #RoseOfTralee, #irishwater, and #ConorMcGregor also created plenty of traffic.

If you're looking for a real-time soundtrack to the world's biggest moments, in other words, the humble hashtag is as good a place as any to start.

Top hastags

#ff is short for #FollowFriday. Each Friday, you recommend Twitter profiles that you appreciate and enjoy to all of your followers by using #ff, which has become one of Twitter's biggest hashtags, with almost 600 million mentions to date.

#BlackLivesMatter was born when Tweeters wanted to express their anger at the shootings involving the police and black citizens across the US. The phrase was used more than nine million times in 2015 and, alas, is still resonant and widely used today.


#JeSuisCharlie allowed tweeters to show their solidarity with Parisians and their support for free speech after the attack on the headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It has spawned a number of variants, including #JeSuisParis, which followed the Bataclan attacks in 2015 and also #JeSuisOrlando (after 49 people were killed at Pulse nightclub by a shooter in 2016).

#marref was used by those canvassing for (and against) marriage equality in a bid to get their respective viewpoints across ahead of the 2015 referendum. The hashtag helped the debate to go straight to the top of the news agenda.

#love is officially the most popular hashtag on Instagram in 2017 (so far). Get a room, everybody.

Irish Independent

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