Hashtag, The Life and Times of a Public Affairs Superstar: The symbol formerly known as the pound sign

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Posted on February 23, 2016

The actual birth date and age of the hashtag is unknown. Its early years are surrounded in mystery, leaving many to speculate to its true life story. Seeking public approval from a young age, the hashtag tried on many monikers and identities, making it difficult to trace a linear life story. However, most accept that the hashtag has distinguished origins and was always destined for a life of fame. Today, it is one of the most powerful and frequently used tools in public affairs campaigns. However, it’s journey to becoming a titan of online conversations was not always a smooth one, and you should consider both its life story and shifting cachet when seeking its services.

Early Life

The hashtag’s ancestors hail from Ancient Rome, from the renowned Libra Pondo, or ‘pound in weight’ line. An established and respected name, the family business began in the 14th century (during the late Medici rule) and was active throughout Rome. Their crest of ‘lb’ marked the weight of various goods and it was often stylized with a bar across the top of both the ‘l’ and the ‘b’ to indicated the connection between the two letters and to ensure that the ‘l’ was not mistaken for the number 1. When the family immigrated to North America, a misunderstanding at the immigration desk, so common to new arrivals, resulted in a name change and the stylized Libra Pondo ‘lb’ became the # and referred to, informally, as ‘the pound sign’. Once in North America, the Libra Pondos carried on the family business of indicating pound units under their new crest, and as they established themselves in North America they also branched into new ventures, such as indicating general numbers.

Referred to simply as ‘the number sign,’ the hashtag spent its childhood in a completely different sphere than its current fast-paced life of fame — moving around the countryside, growing up in the slow-paced and pastoral landscapes of chess games, proof-reading, and cartography. Precocious and something of a prodigy, it received the honour of representing a move that results in a checkmate in chess when still in its infancy; moving into proof-reading, it shouldered responsibility beyond its young age and took on the role of indicating that a space should be inserted. In adolescence, the hashtag experienced a fit of restlessness and decided to travel abroad. Wanting to differentiate itself from convention and the family business, the hashtag began experimenting, and upon graduation, embarked on your typical post-secondary Eurotrip. The hashtag found alternative work slightly outside of the standardized family business while on sojourn in Sweden. Living far from its familial traditions and ties, it explored its artistic proclivities and settled into a more ‘European’ and ‘free’ lifestyle, marking the locations of lumber yards on Swedish maps.

Yet, a return to North American life was inevitable. While it enjoyed the bucolic and sleepy pace of Swedish cartography, the quiet life was not for the hashtag and it could not deny its ambition and thirst for the limelight. However, after years of living abroad on a meager cartographer’s stipend, the hashtag’s finances were strained. Having rejected the family line of work, this was no prodigal return, and it could not avail itself of the Libra Pondo resources. Thus, with no other options, the hashtag settled in New Jersey and took up work with a new and exciting telephone company.

Early Career

In 1968, Bell Laboratories, creator of the Touch Tone phone, wanted symbols to use with their new technology and even out the numbers on their keypad grid. The company sent researchers across North America to assess public opinion on what they would like included alongside the numbers on their dial pad. Being referred to as ‘the number sign,’ the hashtag was a natural selection, and was taken on by Bell Laboratories, where it made its debut on their new phone pad. Incidentally, this is where it met its close friend the asterisk, also a new addition to the dialing pad. Thanks to their lineage, both the hashtag and the asterisk were already familiar to computer systems and the standard QWERTY keyboard, and they enjoyed success in their new employment. Despite its achievements, however, the hashtag still wanted a name and legacy separate from its family line. While at Bell Laboratories, it changed its name to ‘the Octothorpe’ and asked to be credited as such in the phone manuals.

The hashtag toiled for some time in steady employment, but low-level celebrity. Sure, it was ubiquitous, but it still hungered for greater fame than simple name-recognition and procedural convenience— something a little more Hollywood and little less textbook. Looking to hit it big, it jumped on the opportunity to, yet again, be involved with new and exciting technology. In the late 1990s, the Internet was catching fire, and the hashtag searched for avenues that would present new challenges and uncharted territory. After an exhausting search, it finally found work in the unregulated, unfiltered, and underground realm of chat rooms. Exploring the dark corners of Internet Relay Chats (IRC), the hashtag threw itself into the heady and reckless universe of instant communication, usernames, and slang. While its family still enjoyed quiet mainstream success, the hashtag became a member of the secret group of elemental symbols, The Glyphs (rumoured to be affiliated with the Free Masons and Illuminati. Various theories suggest that together, these three groups are responsible for the success of some of the most powerful figures in the world). Other notable, but less famous members of The Glyphs include the slash, the pilcrow (aka paragraph mark), the interrobang, and the manicule. Driven and competitive, the hashtag quickly gained prominence within the community, appearing before subject titles to mark different topics and channels of conversation in IRCs.

Fame

Into the 2000s, the hashtag was powerful and respected, but in secret. After years of dominating online backroom conversations and being employed by the technological elite, the hashtag became a crossover hit in 2007, when it was thrust into mainstream spotlight by communications giant, Twitter.

Twitter’s designer, Chris Messina, drew from his experience in IRCs and suggested the team use the hashtag to indicate different topics and create groups on their burgeoning communications platform. In a blog response to Chris and his suggestion, Stowe Boyd referred to the hashtag as such, instead of as the ‘pound sign’, for the first time in mainstream record. The hashtag immediately seized upon its new identity and prepared itself for the massive exposure this new social media platform offered.

Soon everyone wanted a piece of the hashtag. Even Twitter rival, Facebook, could not deny its star power and incorporated it into its social media interface. Instagram and Google + were quick to follow. Instagram in particular decided to employ the hashtag at every chance, where it was immediately swarmed by its millennial groupies who hastened to attach it to everything from #grateful, to #sorrynotsorry, to #brunch. With new fame and fortune the hashtag was no stranger to the #riseandgrind, and was forced to start every morning accompanying millions of Instagram and Twitter users on their daily trips to the gym and afterward, join them for breakfast.

Backlash

Like many celebrities in the 21st-century world of constant information and marketing, the hashtag experienced overexposure. Similar to other superstars such as JLO, Ben Affleck, and virtually every boy band in the early 2000s, the fact that the hashtag was everywhere became a reason to hate it. Suddenly, once a celebrated and respected member of communications groups, it was a source of derision and sarcasm.

This backlash reached its climax in 2013 with the infamous late-night Jimmy Fallon skit. Joined by Justin Timberlake, the two celebrities mocked the excessive use of the hashtag and inflicted untold injury to its reputation (the hashtag briefly considered seeking damages, but ultimately, decided that would only do further harm to its brand). The skit culminated with ‘#hashtag’, painfully depicting that its overuse had rendered the hashtag, essentially, useless. Reeling from the blow, it took a step back and lowered its public profile. After the skit, people were less enthusiastic in employing the hashtag and for a time, it was notably absent (although not completely gone) from the tweets and posts of cutting-edge social media users, such as journalists, writers, and editors.

This is most clearly seen in Twitter’s daily ticker of trending tops. In recent years, the hashtag has begun to slip from the headlines of today’s news. Recently, Twitter’s ‘trending’ account, a live updated log of the top issues on Twitter, has begun to include topics that do not include a hashtag. While this space was once completely dominated by the hashtag, new algorithms and Twitter’s realization that the hashtag is only used in particular instances resulted in a slip from prominence.

Humanitarian work and campaigns

While away from the mainstream spotlight, the hashtag became involved in various political and human rights causes. Becoming affiliated with various advocate groups, the hashtag became involved with some of the biggest online movements and conversations of the 21st century. From #YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls, to corporate outreach like #BellLetsTalk, the hashtag was instrumental in drawing attention to important issues online. This wasn’t completely uncharted territory for the hashtag: it came up working on causes, such as Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, when it was employed on the #askobama campaign.

With these causes, the hashtag realized its true worth within the social media realm: that it is uniquely suited to transcend geographical space and connect like-minded people. The hashtag’s humanitarian work demonstrated that it is no mere marketing tool, but a useful part of raising awareness and effecting change. The ability with which the properly employed hashtag can rally people and focus them on an issue is unparalleled on today’s social media platforms.

Employing the hashtag

Now, the hashtag is more selective in its employ. While it once latched on to any phrase or tagline in hopes of stealing more and more spotlight, with its age, maturity, and experience it has somewhat receded from the public eye to more practical and logical applications. If you are attempting to engage the hashtag in its services for your public affairs issue, you should remember its history and use these guidelines to ensure a successful working relationship:

Pick one:

At this stage in its career, the hashtag does not like to be overemployed. Like others who have survived the social media boom, the hashtag has realized the value of strategic restraint. As with most established tools, its power come in its practicality. You should not employ the hashtag multiple times for multiple phrases and idioms related to your cause or issue. If you do, it’s distinction and usefulness is diminished. Going back to its roots, the hashtag prefers to be employed for its organizational and research capabilities. To gain awareness, you want users to be able to easily search and find all of the content related to your public affairs issue. Thus, you should decide on one appropriate phrase that encapsulates your campaign as a whole and that can be applied to your messaging. If you are running multiple issue campaigns, use your best judgement as to whether you should engage the hashtag for separate phrases for each campaign or one overall brand hashtag. In every instance of employ, at most, you should use only one to two other hashtag phrases in conjunction in a single post, such as with affiliated causes.

Be specific:

The hashtag recommends that you do not make your selected phrase too long or too wordy: brevity is key, and while the hashtag appreciates style, it prefers relevance. For a successful engagement with the hashtag, above all else, ensure that your phrase makes sense for your campaign. It can be witty, it can be funny, and it can even be oblique, but it should not be too broad. It should be quickly and easily identifiable as your cause and be specific enough to demarcate your issue from other similar causes and organizations online.

Speaking of brevity, and of course, style, do not include spaces or punctuation with the hashtag. The hashtag does not like them, and it will refuse to hyperlink your content within a group based on your phrase.

Do your homework:

Given its prominence, the hashtag is in demand and pressed for time. Do your due diligence before coming to the hashtag, and research the other phrases and channels on which it is already employed. If you want to have a successful and fruitful relationship with the hashtag, you must first rule out that you are not engaging it in an interaction that conflicts with its other work. Otherwise, the hashtag cannot help you in distinguishing your messaging from existing online content that is not applicable to your cause.

Play to its strengths:

At its core, the hashtag is about the people. For public affairs campaigns you want to connect with people who are likely to support your cause and to educate others. In addition to bringing together groups — both online and offline — the hashtag also excels at consumer/audience communication. Don’t use it simply as a a brand awareness mechanism. One of the most effective engagements for the hashtag is to host a Q and A on Twitter in which people can track and participate.

Life today

Today, the hashtag enjoys a respected and illustrious career. Should you wish to engage the hashtag in its services, remember that it has already lived a long life. Achieving its childhood dream of distinguishing itself from its family, most online users think of the hashtag first and the pound sign second. If you wish for your public affairs campaign to be similarly successful in engaging and building awareness, learn from the hashtag’s experience. It would be best to team up. There is little to lose in such a relationship and much to gain. After all, the hashtag is, truly, a pro.

Photo: “scales” by Petter Palandar

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