If there’s one character that is recognizable on the internet, to both young and old, it’s this one: #
The unassuming hashtag has risen to become one of the most widely used and most important symbols of the digital age. Social media channels are defined and organized by it, marketing campaigns are made or broken by its use, and the rhythm beat of popular culture seem inextricably tied to its strings.
But where did this symbol come from? And how did it gain pride of place in the age of social media?
Ancient Beginnings: A Weighty Matter
Believe it or not, the hashtag has been around for quite a while. Its use is traced back to Roman times when writers would use the abbreviation “lb” over and over again, adding a line above to indicate that it was an abbreviation of for the phrase “libra pondo” meaning “pound in weight”.
Press the Pound Key: Type Writers and Touch-Tone Telephones
By the twentieth century, long after the time of the Romans was done, the # symbol had migrated to the typewriter to denote numbers in general.
But it was in the 1960s that they got their first true entrance into the world of tech.
In the mid-1960s, Bell Laboratories, sent researchers scouring the country to discover which symbols the public would most likely accept to be used in their then new Touch Tone phone technology.
The researchers returned with the asterisk (*) and the pound sign (#)—as it was known by then—both of which were already in use on the standard American typewriter.
By the mid-1980s, the pound sign continued its upwardly mobile trajectory and made its debut in the world of Touch Tone phone users. Readers of a certain age will most likely remember a time when we spent hours speaking to automated customer service systems, entering numbers and letters, and always ending with the pound key.
The pound key at the end was important because it acted as a separator between number and letter strings.
There is some debate as to when the # symbol came to be known as the pound in the US, with some schools of thought saying the name rises from the fact that UK-made keyboards placed the monetary pound sign on the same key as the number 3 which also turns out to be the same key the # sign is placed on US-made keyboards.
We will never know for sure. But it is worth noting that in the UK, in place of the name “pound” which is already taken, the # symbol is known as the “hash”.
The Tweet that Changed the Internet
Just over one year after the launch of Twitter, in 2007, a technology developer and self-styled ‘hash godfather’ Chris Messina tweeted the suggestion to use the pound sign as an indicator to group tweets around a common word or phrase.
He tweeted to his followers:
“[H]ow do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
Even Twitter was skeptical about the idea at first, claiming that its origins and use were too technical for there to be any hope of the convention being adopted by the wider population.
How wrong they were.
The hashtag, as the term came to be known, after Messina’s tweet, got its chance to prove its usefulness and versatility during a devastating fire in San Diego during the fall of 2007.
Twitter users used hashtags to stay abreast of the news and updates concerning the fire on their Twitter feeds.
By 2009, the humble pound-turned-hashtag was in the thick of political protests and social upheavals around the world.
So Twitter finally got over its skepticism and added hyperlinks so that users could easily click on hashtags to find tweets that use that phrase.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, pretty much every social media site has adopted the hashtag. You can see it all around you in movies, apparel, politics, events, and on and on.
Quite a long journey for a symbol that rose as a contraction. #nowyouknow