Chicken or the Egg: What Came First? Twitter or the Hashtag?

These days, it’s tough to watch any kind of primetime television or sporting event without noticing some kind of hashtag that’s associated with the program. This symbol has been so widely used in every form of media that it’s tough to remember a time when we didn’t use it. However, Twitter, the hashtags’ main social media platform, was created in 2006, so the hashtag has really only been in use for about 10 years. Or has it?

The Back Story

shutterstock_87819007If you were born any time before the early 2000’s, you’ll know that the hashtag is really just the pound symbol from landline telephones. Back in the day not everyone had their own personal cellphone. But they did have their own extension line in the office. If you were trying to reach someone at their place of business, you’d better know their extension number. If you happened to know it, you would punch it in followed by the pound symbol, and away you went. The pound symbol was integrated into this technology around the 1960’s by Bell Laboratories. They were the first company to really begin mass producing landline telephones. However, it wasn’t fully used until the 1980’s when customer service lines became the popular way to handle everyone’s complaints or questions.
Operators were able to connect you to different departments using various extensions. The hashtag symbol, or at that time the pound symbol, was used to separate these strings of numbers and help categorize them, so operators could connect you to the appropriate line. If you needed to reach a customer service rep, you entered XXXX followed by #. If you had to get transferred over to HR, you’d enter XXXX followed by #. In a sense, you were attempting to enter the correct passcode. This would help the operator get you to the proper connection.

The pound symbol acted as the final decoder to make sense of the numbers. Without it, the numbers were useless.

Unfortunately, with voice recognition programs today, the pound symbol has become somewhat obsolete. You can merely state the extension number you’d like to reach out loud, and the phone knows where to connect you. The pound symbol, known as the hashtag on social media, has been all but forgotten in the realm of telephones. However, it has certainly made a resurgence due to the presence of Twitter, and even though it has a different name, its purpose is still similar to its original one.

The Modern Day Decoder

Remember when I said you can’t watch any kind of primetime television without seeing a hashtag somewhere? Let’s take the NCAA National Championship game last Monday as a prime example.

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Notice the giant white banner at the top of the screenshot. It’s doesn’t say “Go Clemson!” or “Roll Tide!” It doesn’t cheer on any of the teams that were competing that evening. Instead it says, “#CFBPlayoff.” It’s a string of letters that, without the hashtag, would just be meaningless, much like the string of numbers when attempting to reach someone’s extension. It’s the hashtag that gives it purpose. It acts as a translator or decoder much like the pound symbol on the dial pad of a telephone. If you just wrote, “Watching the CFBPlayoff,” everyone would be confused. “Why did they abbreviate college football? Isn’t football one word anyway? Why is the B capitalized as well? Why couldn’t they just type it all out?”

However, by placing the hashtag before the aforementioned phrase, you’re now alerting everyone to the correct passcode. You’re providing people with the proper phrase to connect one another. In a sense, people can see that and think, “Oh! This is the extension I need to dial. This is the proper string of numbers I need to hit in order to connect to the proper line.” That’s the beauty of the hashtag in social media. It can connect thousands and thousands of people all to that one “line” without ever having to hear a busy signal.

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 10.10.37 AMOf course, the hashtag can do much more than decode abbreviations. For instance, In normal conversation, you wouldn’t say, “Hey, I’m watching the hashtag CFB playoff.” If you’re in a room full of people, all watching watching that game, they know exactly what you’re doing. There’s no need to include a hashtag into everyday conversation. But if you’re trying to express that same thought on the internet and wish to communicate with those who are also talking about that same game, it gets a little more complicated.

Twitter has over 320 million active users monthly. That’s slightly less than the entire population of the US, all having singular conversations at the same time. That’s a lot. If you were to watch a live feed of every tweet hitting the Twittersphere, it would look like utter chaos. So how the hell are you supposed to find and share a conversation with someone about the same subject? Hashtags.

In the first quarter of Monday’s National Championship game, Alabama running back, Bo Scarbrough, ripped off an amazing 25 yard run for the game’s first score. Of course, you immediately think to write a simple tweet about that amazing play, but think to yourself, “what does everyone else have to say?” With the ever-evolving use of the hashtag, you don’t have to think that ever again. By simply heading to Twitter and searching the hashtag provided, you can see what everyone else thought about that play. Instead of trying to sort through EVERYTHING on Twitter, the hashtag allows you to sort through everything that includes #CFBPlayoff. Not only does the hashtag make sense of the letters that follow, it also sorts it, too.

How All of This Matters to My Business

You might be thinking to yourself, “Alright, so I can communicate better with my fellow sports fans. But how does this really help MY business?” Well, just because one of your events isn’t being televised on national TV does not mean you can’t create your own hashtag for it. If your business has its own personal Twitter account, create a designated hashtag for it. If you have an upcoming gala or party, create a hashtag for that specific event.

Not only does it help you translate internet jargon and sort through peoples’ collective thoughts, but it also provides you with tangible results that you can hold in your hand via your phone or tablet. By creating your company’s own hashtag, you can see what people are saying about it, much like the example mentioned above. You can see what kind of conversations people are having about it and engage them. It’s like having your own case study in the palm of your hand.

It can also provide feedback for company events. People are a lot more candid and open when they’re tweeting out hashtags. To them, it feels like they’re not being pried for answers, as opposed to responding to a survey email. A survey email feels like you’re trying to rip those answers away from your audience, so they’re not as reluctant to let them go. A hashtag seems like a highly exclusive password that only people at YOUR party get to use. As a result, you get more honest responses with real-time updates.

We know. We get it. Hashtags seem like this dumb fad that tweens use to try and be clever when they’re upset at their Taco Bell order. But they’re so much more than that. They have a long history of importance dating back to landline telephones. This importance continues today in social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. It helps provide purpose to senseless abbreviations, sorts and categorizes conversations on the internet, and provides your business will real-time feedback. If you’re not utilizing a hashtag, you really should be.