It’s been 10 years since the hashtag first appeared on Twitter, created by Chris Messina, a developer at Google at the time. It was his idea to use the # US pound sign as a way to aggregate tweets around a particular topic, which he first published within a tweet on 23 August, 2007.
Some of the most memorable hashtags have been #FollowFriday (or #FF), which over the past 10 years has been used more than half a billion times, and #NowPlaying is another all-time favourite that’s been tweeted more than one billion times. Unsurprisingly, #Election2016 was the most widely used political hashtag last year, and while Twitter users publicly mourned mass-casualty attacks, hashtags such as #PrayForOrlando and #PrayForNice made it into the top 10 in 2016. Social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, and #jesuischarlie in the aftermath of the attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were also brought to prominence through the power of the hashtag.
Twitter UK’s managing director Dara Nasr said: “From their first use 10 years ago, hashtags have grown to be part of everyday language across the globe, with 125 million used every day on Twitter.”
The hashtag has become so popular that it’s extended to other social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and is now used conversationally within text messages, for example. It has arguably become one of the most widely used and recognisable characters of the digital age. But it hasn’t always been this way and within the marketing world it’s fair to say that hashtags took a while to gain proper traction, and were misunderstood or misused for quite some time. There have also been plenty of examples over the past 10 years when Twitter uses have used hashtags to publicly shame a brand or expose a mistake that they’ve made: the hashtag #fail itself is pretty well used.
A memorable example from the hashtag archives is when Aussie airline Qantas, not particularly known for its quality of service, asked customers to share their #QantasLuxury experiences just a day after the airline had grounded its fleet and locked out staff for 48 hours over a union pay dispute. Unsurprisingly, disgruntled customers and staff seized the opportunity to air their grievances via the campaign hashtag, and a Twitter firestorm ensued. At the peak of the campaign, the airline was receiving 51 tweets per minute abusing or making fun of the hashtag. It’s fair to say that the brand has never lived this #PRfail down.
One of the funniest hashtag fails that goes down in Twitter history involved a McDonald’s campaign, where the fast food giant attempted to get more personal with customers by asking them to share their favourite #McDStories. Unfortunately for McDonald’s, the campaign didn’t quite go to plan, and thousands of unfavourable stories about the brand were unleashed across Twitter, via the hashtag, which continues to this day despite the fact that the campaign itself was pulled within two hours of going live.
Over the past few years Twitter has appeared to have lost favour to trending platforms such as Instagram and Snap, and as a result it has struggled somewhat to evolve its purpose and identity. Notably a year ago at Dmexco, ‘the’ European conference for adtech, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey took centre stage (via Skype) with WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell, and revealed that he wanted to reposition Twitter as a news-sharing site, taking it beyond a pure-play social network. “Our real challenge is making sure we are continuing to give people a reason to download the app and personalise their own news stream, their experience and get in on the conversation,” Dorsey shared.
Twitter has certainly held its own within politics over the past year or so, and particularly around the US presidential election and Brexit, largely powered by hashtags. For Donald Trump, Twitter is easily his platform of choice and he even used it to publish his Election Day declaration…
Monness Crespi Hardt analyst James Cakmak said if @RealDonaldTrump were to leave Twitter the social media platform would lose as much as $2bn in market value. “There is no better free advertising in the world than the president of the United States,” he claimed.
No other social platform has its brand so closely aligned with news, and in the App Store it is categorised as a news app and ranks as the most downloaded in that sector in more than 100 countries, including the UK, where it leads from BBC News, Sky News, Mail Online and the Guardian. Its filtered timeline, which launched last year, has done much to reposition Twitter as a news platform.
Twitter has chosen to publicise a decade of hashtags partly because it believes that they allow people to break out of their ideological circles, and interact with other political viewpoints. “Hashtags smash echo chambers”, says senior Twitter executive Dara Nasr, in an interview with The Drum.
Hashtags evolve faster than we can create them, and there’s no guarantee that we will still be using them in three year’s time. They are certainly helpful, when used correctly, and can help to build a community and even a movement around a particular issue. Hashtags can certainly be useful for discovering new content and sifting through unstructured online information. Maybe in the future, someone will find a way to monetise them really well too…