They got their start in one of the nerdiest (and now quite dusty) corners of the internet. Hashtags made the news this week when Facebook announced that it’s adding functionality to the pound key. It’s big. Just check CNN, the New York Times, and Aljazeera.
Sure, people have been using hashtags on Facebook for a long time, but the new development is that Facebook hashtags will now be clickable and indexable like they are on other social sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Vine.
The origin of hashtags can be traced back to IRC (internet relay chat) channels, one of the earliest forms of web conversation. Primary IRC channels were denoted with a hash mark.
Then along came Twitter in 2007, and it wasn’t long before someone came up with a method to sift through the vast ocean of messages to locate relevant content. Chris Messina, always an early adopter, wrote a blog post in which he suggested migrating the tagging convention from IRC to Twitter in August 2007, and shortly thereafter Stowe Boyd came up with calling the practice hash tagging. The American Dialect Society named “hashtag” Word of the Year at its annual meeting in Boston this year, and notes that the word itself has established itself in spoken dialogue.
I’ve been a reluctant user of hashtags, relying on good content to build my social media audience, but I’m in the minority. My connections tend to go for the humor angle, making up one-hit wonder tags, like #whycantthisplanetakeoff and #lookslikebarrymanilow.
In a recent Twitter check, trending hashtags included #tbt (“turn back time” or “Throwback Thursday”) and #WhatMakesMeMad. People hashtag events, celebrities, products, current events and states of mind.
So why is the upcoming Facebook hashtag convention relevant to business? Facebook has always been a bit of a Wild West for companies. Without an indexing function, it’s just about impossible to find out who’s talking about your product and in what context.
In the near future, you will be able to plug a hashtag into the facebook search bar to see all instances of its use, as well as create hashtagged posts and ads. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. Always check first to see if your hashtag is already in use, and be prepared for both positive and negative uses of it. Hashtags are like fledgling birds. Once you set a hashtag out into the world, it’s no longer under your control. But on the upside, unlike birds, all hashtags come equipped with their own tracking devices.