When Dick Costolo succeeded Evan Williams as the CEO of Twitter, the social network blogged about the occasion with a post entitled “#newtwitterceo”. This is an example of a new kind of link—the hashtag—and its popularity is growing rapidly. The #-symbol (a.k.a. “number sign” or “pound”) introduces the form, which precedes a term or phrase, often without punctuation or capitalization. A search for #newtwitterceo only returns results with that specific tag, far more relevant than a search for “new Twitter CEO”. Twitter encourages using hashtags in this way. They represent a new form of link for the social Web, pointing not to a specific website, but often to a larger topic or thread. Some writers have been quick to specify the hashtag’s dos and don’ts, or to discourage its use. Others have recognized its potential to attract a larger audience. New websites have been founded with the sole premise of pointing users to the best hashtags.
In 2007, Chris Messina suggested the pound symbol be used for organizing groups via Twitter, and ever since hashtags have allowed tweets to show up more easily in search results. The form underwent mission creep, and now serves many functions, the most prominent being adding additional context to a tweet. It can reveal the speaker’s tone. It’s almost like an aside, a whisper from the tweeter to the reader. For example, Mitt Romney tweeted: “Only in @BarackObama’s world is it an “economic positive” that Americans are giving up hope and leaving the workforce #clueless”. With only 140 characters to make a statement, the added context can be particularly valuable.
The hashtag has leaked from Twitter into the wider Web. Twitter has officially supported hashtags since 2009, and other websites have begun to do the same. Regardless of official support, hashtags are common on popular social networks today, including Facebook, which has led to some confusion about what exactly they mean. This has, in turn, created a niche for new services which explain the meaning behind the tags. Much like URLs, they can serve as guideposts for navigating the vast soup of content generated every day by the millions of users worldwide.
The usefulness and applicability of hashtags have brought the form beyond the Web and into popular culture. Hashtags have appeared in advertising (including the Super Bowl), Comedy Central’s Roast of Donald Trump, and as a recurring gag on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. They can also guide professionals (e.g., lawyers) networking and researching online. Hashtags seem to fill the niche left by AOL keywords of yore. They provide an easy-to-remember shortcut—a way of connecting us through the web without unwieldy URLs. However, they are also user-generated and are capable of expressing and connecting the ideas of many. As Internet communication becomes more complex and more personal, the popularity of hashtags is likely to increase. Going forward, an understanding of hashtags will be important for up-and-coming professionals on the social Web.