The History of #Hashtag

If you’re like me, up until a few years ago, when someone said the word “hash” to you, your brain would autocomplete by adding the word “brown” after it.  And if you’re like me, you would inevitably start to salivate and search the surrounding area for said potatoey goodness.  (Side note: what is it about potatoes that makes them delicious in every cooked form?  But alas, this is a history lesson, not a science lesson, and, coincidentally, it has nothing to do with potatoes.)

Of course now things are a bit different.  Intelligent people do still crave fried potatoes of course, but the word “hash” is more frequently followed by the word “tag,” which sounds much less savory.  As it is with most trends, especially those that emerge from the nebulous and infinite miasma that is the Internet, you and I probably don’t remember exactly when it was that hashtags became a thing, or even when it was that people in the United States decided to agree with the rest of the world that the pound sign could be called a “hash.”  

As it just so happens, the stories of both the hashtag and the pound sign are fascinating.  Unsurprisingly, the pound sign is much older, so let’s start there.

The pound sign as we know it today has astonishingly few mainstream uses, which, strangely enough, is precisely why over the years, it became so useful.  Tradition, legend, and hearsay dictate that the original use for the pound sign was literally a misreading of the abbreviation for the weight measurement “pound” (which evidently comes from the Latin libra pondo, which is why “lb” means pound.  Who knew?).  Back in the mother country of Britain in the eighteenth and earlier centuries, a horizontal line was added to the “lb” abbreviation for pound in order to distinguish it from the number 16.  In this way, the pound sign looked like this: ℔.  By the early 1800s, British bookkeepers had morphed this symbol into what is today still called the pound sign throughout most of Europe: £.  Of course, the United States wasn’t really on good terms with Britain in the early 1800s, so in the same way that we began pronouncing our “r”s and using letter-sized paper, we also turned our pound sign into two horizontal lines overlaid with two vertical strokes: #.  

This is where things get interesting.  In the early 1900s, the Teletype Corporation began working on creating teleprinters for printing telegrams (in this 50-year span of history where nearly every invention had the prefix “tele-”).  In order for telegrams to work, they needed a binary code for every letter and symbol that might need to be used.  This system was called “ASCII” or American Standard Code for Information Interchange.  Interestingly, the company decided to use the code for the British pound sign (£) as the code for the US pound sign (#).  This opened up the door for the # to later be used in telephones and on computers, but considering the symbol’s limited uses, the only real reason it was even included on the home telephone keypad was as a “just in case,” in the event that telephones might some day be used to control other machines.  Which they now do.

So now the year is 2007, and the pound sign is on both keyboards and phone keypads, and still has very few uses.  It’s primary function is in computer coding languages, usually as a catch-all symbol to give special meaning or clarity to whatever it was attached to.  For instance “#2” is clearly the ordinal measure of something that comes second in a series whereas “2” could be a value or ratio that can be added.  It has also come into play in Internet Relay Chat networks (IRC) to label groups or topics.  Chris Messina, a Google and open-source supernerd with a Twitter account, tweets out “How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups.  As in #barcamp [msg]?”  This grammatically questionable phrase became the first test balloon for the use of hashtags  When Messina talked to Twitter about having links to channels tagged with the pound sign, Twitter said something to the effect of “These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on.”  So that’s cool.

Just a few months after Messina’s August tweet, there were some very bad forest fires in and around San Diego.  Messina saw that some “citizen journalists” were trying to post updates about the fire to their Twitter accounts, but having mixed results in getting them seen by the people who were interested in them.  Messina sent a message to citizen journalist Nate Ritter and told him that if he used the tag #sandiegofire, people would know what to search for and would always find his tweets.

The once-reluctant Twitter now has a whole guidebook to using hashtags.  And the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has published a report on how to use hashtags during disasters.  There are three rules:

  1. Early standardization of hashtags designating a specific disaster
  2. Standard, non-changing hashtag for reporting non-emergency needs
  3. Standard, non-changing hashtags for reporting emergency needs

There are some long-standing hashtags for these purposes, such as #iSee, #iReport and #PublicRep, as well as #911US and #999UK.

So the next time you look at the trending hashtags on Twitter, or hear someone say the word “hashtag” out loud unironically, you don’t have to roll your eyes.  Instead, you can travel back in time to your happy place, the place where poor handwriting, pure chance, a little foresight and a lot of nerdery made the pound sign what it is today: a mostly useless symbol that turns out to be incredibly useful.

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