It’s been quite a journey so far. We’ve already examined four transforming aspects of the English language introduced by the use of the internet that reshaped how we converse and write online. We’ve come to emote with emojis, condense words with internet-unique portmanteaus, chat in internet slang, and utilize punctuation in new and interesting ways to convey new meanings within online discourse.
Today, in the final entry of this article series, we will examine what is perhaps the most recent of all five of our discussion points: hashtags.
So, join us for this last part of what I hope has been an enjoyable and introspective look at the interesting ways the English language has adapted throughout our use of the internet.
Part 5: Hashtags
While the hash (#) sign has existed for at least a couple of centuries now and for a variety of uses, its use in the form of a hashtag began in 2007, with the tweet below:
The man who shared this tweet, Chris Messina, is credited with creating hashtags as we know them today. He was a product designer running his own internet consulting company at the time, and he and his Silicon Valley contacts had been using Twitter, at a time when it was still making a name for itself in the US market.
“He got the idea of using a hashtag from Internet chat rooms that had a pound (#) symbol in front of them,” CNBC learned in an interview with him. “He decided to pitch the idea to Twitter, but the company told him it was ‘nerdy’ and that it would never catch on.”
Still, he persevered, continuing to incorporate hashtags in his tweets to create an informal topic grouping system of sorts. Today, this sounds like a given, where clicking a hashtag on Twitter redirects you to page with all the tweets using this tag. At the time, however, the hashtags were just text like the rest of the tweet, and served as a rudimentary version of the system we’re familiar with today. When you searched for a specific hashtags, the search engine would look for it as if it were a regular piece of text like the rest of the characters and words in a tweet, as opposed to a specific metadata signifier.
Over time, Messina’s efforts paid off, starting a snowball effect across the Twitterverse where more and more people would begin to consciously use hashtags because they’ve seen others use it and because it helped find and group discussions under a single heading/topic.
By 2009, Twitter finally added the feature to its platform, where ironically, the hashtags would become part of Twitter’s brand appeal.
We’ll end this history lesson here, but it’s worthy to note that Messina did not attempt to patent hashtags once they had properly kicked off, because in his opinion “they are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one.”
Going mainstream and multiple uses
As if often the case in the world of social media, it’s hard to hold on to your brand’s unique features and products when they can be so easily copied and duplicated by competitors. This was the case with Twitter’s hashtags, where other platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok had adopted this feature in the years that followed.
By 2014, the word had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, officially becoming part of the lexicon, after years of being used online to tag tweets, Stories, Facebook posts, and more.
In terms of day to day conversations held online, hashtags aren’t nearly as prominent in use as emoji or portmanteaus, given that the reason for their conception is entirely different. Still, they’ve managed to make it into informal discussions to convey a certain meaning.
For example: “No one’s got time to safely remove a USB #YOLO”
YOLO stands for “You Only Live Once”, an outdated piece of internet slang that doesn’t find much use today. In the case above, it was mixed with hashtags to create a lingual hybrid of sorts, while also replacing proper punctuation in the way an emoji often would. We’ve truly come full circle now.
Other uses of hashtags, often sarcastically or in a playful manner, occur in online messaging and even in real life at times. #blessed, for example, found growing use online, often used by influencers in its full cringe-worthy glory to signify privilege. Rarely was it used to truly describe a genuine incident of someone being “blessed,” like after having a baby.
Sometimes, hashtags can replace entire words so as to meet the character limit of a platform like Twitter or to declutter a post and reduce the hashtags used at the end.
For example: “Has anyone watched #AvengersEndgame yet? An explosive end to the #MCU “
Here, hashtags are used in a more organic manner, so as to keep the message short while still tagging it as part of the greater discussion about the superhero film Avengers Endgame.
Hashtags continue to find more creative, and often organic, uses online, and will likely continue to do so.
As we’ve come to see throughout this series, the English language has taken on new deviations and transformations online. Some even predict that languages might go extinct as a result of the internet, but that’s a can of worms for another day.
Thanks for reading!