Haggling over the ‘happening’ hashtag

hashtag origins

Trends define the world today. And while the very mention of this trendy sounding term of what signifies obviously being in tandem with the in things of the times evokes prominently a vision of all things style as concerned with fashion, trends have come also to embody style in a range of other life aspects as well. Gone are the days when merely being fashionable was the equivalent to modernity. Modernity today encompasses a wide range of such prevalences governing life in all its spheres that go beyond the play of the aesthetics. Trends of the present time therefore are no longer just being aware of what hairstyle rules the season or what exotic hue would emerge to be the color of the year. They rather are more refined, more elevated yet equally fun aspects of global happenings that come to rule moments at a point or for a period in time.

Yet despite their relevance in the real world, trends also rattle up the world of the digital in their as much ‘happening’ significance. Be it Google trends of search queries or Twitter trends of what’s happening or the Insta trends on what’s ruling lifestyle choices across the world, trends definitely sum up also a world of experiences and occurrences online. And social media, being the conglomerate of every kind of human thought as it is, is particularly effective in setting trends as well as in catering to also those already existing in the realm of it. But while the very idea of trends is exciting in being something that stems from what’s doing the rounds of events currently, this trending exploration on the premises of social media is rendered even more interesting by what has come to define this buzz of the ongoing.

Particularly on Twitter, though extending also to other jaunts on the digital, the topic of trends is rendered all the more interesting to explore by virtue of the now common phenomenon of what are known as hashtags. One of the most popular symbols in recent history, at least as what concerns the affairs of the web, it is the hash # that has come to rule internet conversations in its equal parts solemn and equal parts spunky attributes. Today encountered more than often in all things that characterise world happenings finding relevance also on the many platforms of the web, and extending its might to also effectively crossover into the world of the physical, the hashtag might be commonplace today but in all understandings of its history and origin and stuff, the references are relatively obscured.

There has not ceased to be a confusion as to exactly wherefrom the hashtag, or rather the octothorpe, as it has been ‘originally’ known traces its roots to. Perhaps bearing symbolic derivation in the Latin language of the 14th century, the # marker though is a rather new age phenomenon as far as its associated nomenclature is concerned. Ordinarily known also as the number sign and more popularly as the pound sign, though it is the hash usage that is most prominent, of course by virtue of its even rather recent social media recurrences, the incorporation of what seems like a rather mathematic structure in its simply complex iteration of the ‘design’ in the expanses of technology, that somehow might have paved its path into the world of social media and thereby emerging as part of the global jargon today, stems to only the 1960s. With the New Jersey based Bell Telephone Laboratories conducted market research to find out which symbols the public would prefer to use in the new technology yielding them the choices of the asterisk * and the # that the now phenomenally powerful marketing symbol begin to gain ground.

Bell Labs did well however to not just accredit # its present importance but also in naming it the octothorpe. Said to have been created by combining octo with the last name of Olympic medalist Jim Thorpe by a certain Don MacPherson, and claimed also to have been invented as a joke by Howard Eby and Lauren Asplund in 1964, the octothorpe came to define this petite symbol of newly assumed technological importance. How the symbol came to be known as the pound sign in the United States though is another matter mired in confusion. Theories have it that UK made typewriters had the monetary symbol for pound (£) sharing the same key as the number 3 that which perhaps explains its current naming in being also the symbol that occupies the 3 number key along the expanse of modern day keyboards. More popular however is the theory that links it with the abbreviation lb for pound. As lb came to be written with a line through it to avoid confusing the ‘l’ with ‘1’, it came to be eventually replaced with # to make the typing faster and more convenient. In fact, it might even have been the gravity discoverer Sir Issac Newton who invented the # symbol as a derivation of lb, as shown by a handwritten manuscript that displays a middle point in the process: instead of lifting his pen before drawing the tittle, he messily looped the letters together, forming an early version of the symbol that today is as much a truth of life as the concept of gravity discovered famously by him.

The hashtag made its way deep into the trenches of the technological soon after the Bell generated mass acceptance, entering the domain of the internet through the 1988 created network Internet Relay Chat where users communicate to one another through channels, signified by the pound sign. With the community soon growing to emerge with some half a million users, it became essential for IRC to devise a name for the titles of these channels that let # settle down finally as the hashtag.

Despite however being so vital an element in the IRC spectrum, hashtags perhaps would not have come to be half as popular as they currently are had it not been in their emergence on Twitter. Interestingly, the expansion of the hashtag might to the Twitter was also a draw upon the name derivation of it as part of the Internet Relay Chat. As a “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”- @factoryjoe appeared courtesy a certain Chris Messina who came up with the hashtag with the purpose of gathering discussions and online exchanges regarding Barcamp, a technology unconference gathering activity that spans worldwide, hashtags began spreading to other social media sites and all over the internet to become one of the most widely used functions.

As a social technology expert and long-time user of the IRC, Messina suggested to Twitter that they adapt the hashtag practice to gather, categorize, and index discussions by the use of keywords preceded by a #, even as Twitter founder Evan Williams opined that hashtags probably would not catch up in all their technicality. It didn’t take much time for Williams to be proved wrong as the following couple of years saw hashtags emerge as quite the Twitter phenomenon, setting the trend, as what we call it now. Perhaps the earliest success accruing to this hashtag revelation was an event as remarkable in its unprecedented occurrence in history as the very surprisingly remarkable advances of the symbol that till then did not even reside in its present identity. As a to- be US President Barrack Obama used the hashtag #askobama during his successful 2008 campaign, the startlingly mass power of the # became evident. Establishing further the reach of its impact was the 2009- 2010 Iranian protests that saw the hashtag hysteria unfurling its profound potential, kickstarting off as it had on the premises of the 2007 San Diego forest fires in Southern California. Over time the hashtag ‘movement’ transcended well beyond the chirps of Twitter to occupy also no less prevalent a standing across other forms of social media. Today # is an effective marketing ploy even as it continues to dictate trends over platforms as diverse yet as amalgamating as YouTube, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, finding inroads also into the physical world. The finger hashtag is one case in point, as is the incorporation of it in verbal communication. In all such myriad occurrences and recurrences of it in popular culture, the hashtag does not just define the trends- it also sets them just right!