What actually is a hashtag?

Twitter has been around for a while. Since 2007 in fact. In those intermitting eight years hashtags have become almost synonymous with social media; popping up on almost every other social media site in the process. For people who have grown up with social media (the millennial generation), it’s quite difficult to describe what a hashtag actually is. To them, a hashtag is a hashtag; like a chair is a chair or a table a table. But for anyone entering the brave new world of social media for the first time; the very concept of this ‘hashtag’ business you’ve heard so much about can be completely mystifying. So what actually is a hashtag?

A Hashtag

In it’s simplest sense a hashtag is a topic; referenced by a word that is proceeded by the hash symbol: #. So #arsenal would be where you expect to find people talking about Arsenal FC, or #seo is where you’d expect to find people talking about search engine optimisation.

When Twitter first started, and indeed how it still broadly operates today, there wasn’t a way of placing your tweet into a particular category (like technology or sports or TV and so on) by a drop down list or anything; so people added hashtags as a way of categorising their tweets. This continues today. So if you search on Twitter for #ncfc for example, you should see a list of tweets relating to Norwich City Football Club. It is important to remember, however, that hashtags on Twitter aren’t moderated in any way, and are completely fluid. Someone can write what they like and still put any hashtag. Sometimes this has spelled disaster for some brands, who have had their hashtag ‘hijacked’. An example of this is Australian airline Qantas, who tried to start the hashtag #qantasluxury; only to then find a bunch of people using the hashtag mocking them. Of course, on Twitter, everyone is a comedian:

Qantas Hashtag Disaster

This topics concept has since carried over to most other social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Vine and others.

HOWEVER there is another way hashtags are used, and this is what can sometimes confuse the hell out of people:

As I say, everyone on Twitter is a comedian, so once the social network gained ground; some character had the bright idea to use the hashtag ‘ironically’ to express context. And then this just grew and grew into its own thing. Observe:



and even:

These obviously aren’t searchable topics, but the way that the hashtag has evolved means that this is another way they work. Twitter users often find brands that do this sort of contextual hashtag irritating, so don’t just a bung a hashtag into your social content just because it’s something you’ve heard about and you know you ought to do; you could end up looking a little foolish.

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