The First Time I Saw A Hashtag

Benjamin Zimmer  and Charles Carson of the American Dialect Society  have released Among The New Words (American Speech, Vol. 88, No. 1, Spring 2013), and which lays down the lineaments of the invention and naming of the now mainstream hashtag.

Benjamin Zimmer, Charles Carson, Among The New Words

Hashtag represented the third time in the last four years that the WoTY winner has come from the world of technology: tweet was selected for 2009 and app for 2010. The convention of the hashtag (a word or phrase pre- ceded by the hash symbol #) has, since its inception on Twitter in 2007, grown into a powerful organizer for online talk. but beyond simply keeping track of the flow of conversation, the hashtag has been applied to a multitude of other discursive functions, including self-mockery (Ben Zimmer, “#languagenerdalert: A New Tool for Self-Deprecation,” Boston Globe, Sept. 25, 2011, K2).

Befitting such a flexible conversational tool, the term hashtag itself has flourished with multiple meanings. Whereas it has typically referred to a string of characters prefixed by the hash symbol, now it often gets used for the symbol itself. And it has crept into oral use, in a spoken equivalent of the Twitter convention, as in “hashtag fail” or “hashtag Yolo.” Such oral hashtagging, while linguistically notable, does not appear destined for success if it remains a self-conscious callback to the online form. overuse for marketing purposes does little to help the term’s long-term fortunes, either: while hosting the 2013 Grammys, ll Cool j took the trend to absurd levels by using hashtag six times in 20 seconds (“i’ve been backstage reading all your tweets about hashtag Grammys… we’re going to see hashtag Carrie Underwood, hashtag jack White, hashtag Kelly Clarkson, hashtag bruno mars, and hashtag Sting”).

Hashtag also illustrates how even very new terms are prey to faulty or incomplete memories about their origins. While Chris Messina is recognized as the “hashtag godfather” for first proposing the convention in online discussions among early adopters of Twitter in August 2007, he did not come up with the term hashtag himself. Messina made the suggestion of using the hash symbol in a tweet on August 23; two days later, he followed up with a post on his FactoryCity blog in which he dubbed his creation “channel tags” or “tag channels.” Another participant in these early discussions, Stowe Boyd, tweeted his approval on August 25: “I support the hash tag convention.” After that first attributive usage, Boyd continued using the term hash tag (written as two words) on his blog on August 26. Messina and Boyd did not fully recall this sequence of events when asked about it on Twitter. Fortunately, it is possible to reconstruct such cyberhistory thanks to archived tweets and blog posts. 

It’s worthwhile to note that others – like Anil Dash – did recall the sequence of events involved in the reuse of IRC chat tags in Twitter by Chris Messina, and my calling it a hashtag.

It’s also worth noting that Messina and I were involved at the time in a Twitter and blog-based discussion about membership in groups versus what I call ‘groupings’. In a post at the time, Messina specifically referenced my writings on groupings. A grouping is a collection of people that share attributes in common, like the use of a certain tag on their blog posts, or frequent a certain bar, or study a particular martial art. So the set of people that have written about ‘Hemingway’ are a grouping, or those that have tagged a photo ‘Golden Gate Bridge’. So these people form a sort of a group, but one they weren’t invited to: their own actions make them a member of the grouping.

My argument then (see Hash Tags = Twitter Groupings) was that tags in Twitter would wind up being used in the same way: an indication of the nature of the contents of the tweet. But in aggregate, everyone that uses the hashtag ‘TEDx’ are a grouping, and that self-selected identification could be an important cultural marker. And that’s pretty much what happened.

Chris was trying to suggest that tags could be used to direct tweets to specific defined groups of people (‘channels’), more like Google+ Circles than the way that hashtags are generally used. But he is the guy that started the convention, and I completely forgot that I named it, until Ben Zimmer’s research turned it up.

I also coined the term ‘microsyntax’ to represent the use of special characters, acronyms and keywords in Twitter and elsewhere as syntactic markers (like ’#’, ’@’, and ‘RT’), but that term hasn’t become widely used.

Here’s the OED-like citation:

hashtag, hash tag, hash-tag 1a: n Word or phrase preceded by a hash symbol (#), included in microblog entries for the purpose of thematically grouping such entries [2007 Aug 23 Chris messina Twitter status/223115412 how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?] [2007 Aug 25 Chris messina FactoryCity (blog)(archived) 2007/08/25/groups-for-twitter-or-a-proposal-for-twitter-tag-channels/ So i think i’ve provided at least a vague overview of this notion of “Tag Channels” and that they’re simply used by prefixing one or more words with the hash (#) character. […] To join a channel, simply add a tag hash (#) like this: #barcamp The grid is open!] 2007 Aug 26 Stowe boyd /Message (blog) http://stoweboyd .com/post/39877198249/hash-tags-twitter-groupings (head & text) hash Tags = Twitter Groupings. / Chris messina has outlined (in a fairly voluminous way) a proposal for the use of hash tags (strings like “#tag”) as a way to help make sense of the noise within Twitter. […] And the use can be either actively putting a hash tag (like “#hashtag”) into a tweet, or more passively opting to follow a stream of tweets related to a tagged theme. 2008 Nov 10 Abbey Klaassen AdvertisingAge50(Factiva) if you’re at an event, you can search on the hashtag to figure out who else is Twittering. 2009 oct 15 Gabriel Snyder Gawker The basic way this works is that you can type a comment, upload a photo, or embed a video into that box up top and it will be published on the site wherever you choose by giving it a Twitter-style hashtag. 2010 july 18 jesse lichtenstein New York Times Magazine 24 (lexisNexis) “What you need is a really good hash tag,” [jared] Cohen said. [¶] After a moment everyone agreed that “#muslimengagement” was too long. 2011 Apr 21 michael Schneider TV Guide Fox began the practice last week with Fringe, and has also started putting hashtags at the bottom of the screen on Glee, Bones and the new Christian Slater comedy Breaking In. 2011 june 12 Ashley Parker New York Times ST1 (lexis- Nexis) This year on Super bowl Sunday, Audi broadcast a new commercial featuring a hashtag, #Progressis, that flashed on the screen and urged viewers to complete the “Progress is” prompt on Twitter for the chance to win a prize. 1b: attrib of hashtag 1a 2007 Aug 25 Stowe boyd Twitter http://twitter .com/stoweboyd/status/226570552 i support the hash tag convention: http:// #hashtag #factoryjoe #twitter 2009 Nov 4 Reuters (press release) -2009+bW20091104 (head & text) eventful launches Standard Twitter hashtag reference index for local events / eventful […] announced the launch of a standard hashtag index for local events, which enables users of Twitter […] to have a common reference point for which hashtags to use when tweeting about events before, during and after they occur. 2010 oct 23 Deborah Francisco During Saturday’s game, fans of the two teams will engage in the Nhl’s first “hashtag battle” on Twitter. 2011 june 16 brian Solis http:// (head & text) The hashtag economy / like popular rT memes on Twitter, the hashtag hand sign flew across the social web fueled by twitpics of what would eventually become the calling card of the “hashtag mafia.” #brilliant. 2012 jan 26 Graeme mcmillan Techland (Time blog) 2012/01/26/hashtag-revolts-show-marketing-doesnt-work-on-social-media/ (head & text) #fail: hashtag revolts Show marketing Doesn’t Work on Social media / After all, how were they to know that any attempt to artificially create a hashtag meme was doomed to failure? 2a: n also hashtag symbol hash symbol (#), as used in a hashtag 1a 2008 Dec 17 lee Aase Social Media University, Global -is-the-in-twitter/ ryan link, a SmUGgle from Virginia, asks… What does it mean/do when a word on Twitter is preceded by a #? Answer: The # is called a hashtag, and is described in detail on the Twitter fan wiki. 2009 jan 23 Social Media World -friday/ if you’ve been on Twitter for any length of time you probably noticed people using the hashtag in their posts. This nearly forgotten symbol is given great power on Twitter to mark posts as searchable. […] Sweet little hashtag, enjoy your new place in the spotlight while ampersand is jealous. 2009 Nov 17 Doug Gross CNN Tech A hashtag is the symbol (#) used on Twitter posts to allow them to be found more easily by other users. 2011 mar 19 Amy harmon New York Times A1 (lexis Nexis) “Take one #sxsw, mix in 3 parts oversharing, 2 parts vanity, and unfol- low liberally,” advised jonathan hersh, 26, a software developer in San Francisco, invoking the hashtag symbol used to categorize tweets so they are easier to search for by subject. 2011 oct 13 Twitter support documentation (archived) entries/49309-what-are-hashtags-symbols The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. 2012 june 25 The Hot Word ( blog) The # sym- bol is commonly called the pound sign, number sign and more recently the hashtag. 2b: n Verbal substitution for the hash symbol (#), as used in a real or hypothetical hashtag 1a when spoken aloud 2009 Nov 21 mariana Wagner myKWblog -i-speak-twitter-you/ i recalled the fact that, when hanging out with other Twitter users irl [in real life], i will actually SAY “hashtag [insert witty phrase here]” to emphasize/categorize something i just said. 2010 oct 18 SayKNOWtoTrivia -horn-pop-culture-references-october-15-2010/ in j.A. Adande’s introduction, he says “hashtag FF” (#ff). 2011 Apr 13 Anna mehler Paperny Globe & Mail (Canada) -debatable-hashtag-fail/article576224/ A press release on the NDP’s [New Democratic Party] website crowed that mr. [jack] layton “scored the signature jab of the night by calling Stephen harper’s crime policies a ‘hashtag fail’ a twitter reference that brought down the house and set the social media world all atwitter.” 2011 june 12 Ashley Parker New York Times ST1 (lexisNexis) “if i was talking to my grandmother, i wouldn’t say, ‘i’m having a hashtag bad day’ because she wouldn’t understand,” said matt Graves, a Twitter spokesman. 2011 july 1 Sugarscape -jonas-pretty-funny Nick[jonas]alsotalksaboutthehashtagphenomenonand how he actually says his hashtags in real life. ThAT we can relate to. We say [“]hashtag just sayin[”] after most declarations more than we care to admit. 2012 Sept 1 rebecca Nicholson Guardian (UK) 25 (Factiva) As Fearne [Cotton] might say, hashtag amaze. 2013 Feb 10 ll Cool j The 55th Annual Grammy Awards CbS ( [ ] i’ve been backstage reading all your tweets about hashtag Grammys. And man, it’s hard to keep up. Things are only going to get busy online, because coming up we’re going to see hashtag Carrie Underwood, hashtag jack White, hashtag Kelly Clarkson, hashtag bruno mars, and hashtag Sting. 3a: vt Add a hashtag1ato(one’scomment(s)) 2008mar24rickTuroczyTwitterhttp:// Ugh. Weekend off from Twitter and i’m forgetting my manners. Should have hashtagged “All hat and no cattle” post #openid 2009 Apr 19 Andrea meeson Sunday Inde- pendent(UK)12(Factiva) Amazon.comwasthesubjectofaviolentTwitterstorm this week (it was “hashtagged” #amazonfail). 2009 Aug 25 jon murray LA Snark (blog) To submit an idea, you just need to type a message on Twitter and hashtag it #myidea4CA. 2011 july 24 jeff jarvis Buzz Machine http://buzzmachine .com/2011/07/24/fuckyouwashington/ Then the mellifluously monikered tweeter @boogerpussy suggested: “.@jeffjarvis hashtag it: #FUCKYoUWASh- iNGToN.” Damn, i was ashamed i hadn’t done that. So i did. 2011 Nov 30 hannah Webster The Minaret (Univ of Tampa) but if you ever feel the need to hashtag something you say out loud, i will go after you. 3b: vt Create a hashtag 1a by adding a hash symbol (#) before (a word or phrase) 2013 jan 14 Paul hammond Twitter “i would hashtag three things in that sentence: #i, #love, and #hashtags, then i’d add #ilove- hashtags too just in case.” 2013 Feb 4 Peter DiCampo Salon .com/2013/02/04/introducing_africa_to_the_omg_crowd/ They hashtag #kenya, and you click it and, in addition to seeing what Kenyans are photographing, you also come across everyday Africa. 4: vi Add a hashtag 1a to one’s com- ment(s) 2008 mar 14 jim long Twitter status/771776995 @Scobleizer shouldn’t you hashtag? #UA1172 ;-) 2008 july 21 Nathan T Wright Twitter status/864197632 if you’re on #rAGbrAi and you’re on Twitter, don’t forget to hashtag! 2012 jan 22 jessica Anderson Columbia (Univ) Spectator (New York) in spite of our wide range of backgrounds and opinions, one distinguishable trait has united us through all that—an irresistible propensity to #hashtag. 2012 Dec 12 joe mandese Online Media Daily article/189069/avails-yes-now-you-can-buy-hashtags-too.html [o]ver time, he says radiumone hopes to integrate with other networks that enable users to hashtag, including Twitter, Pinterest, and instagram. —hashtagging vbl n Adding hashtags 1a to comments [2007 Aug 26 Steven hodson WinExtra (blog)(archived) .com/2007/08/26/ideastreaming-a-concept/ WhileTwitterdoesn’tcurrently have any tagging mechanism that is about to change if folks like Stowe boyd and Chris messina; who are proposing a hash (#) tagging system for the service, get any traction with their idea.] 2007 Dec 18 mark masterson Twitter http:// @monkchips is right. germans seem to do a lot of hashtagging. hmm. mehr logisches denken? wortkargeres volk? #hastags #deutschsprachig 2008 jan 1 ontario emperor mrontemp (blog) .html (head & text) hashtagging Challenges When events occur at Different Times in Different locations / i’ve talked ad nauseum about hashtagging and the way that it can be used to cover disasters (#sandiegofire) and important events (#openworld07). in these situations, hashtagging does an admirable job, since the practice (as well as the tools used to accomplish it) is based on a simple principle—the disaster/event is occuring at the same time for all par- ticipants. 2009 may 18 mark baard Boston Globe b6 (Factiva) And this book [The Twitter Book, by Tim o’reilly & Sarah milstein] is likely to be as good as any at defining tweeting, hashtagging, tweetups and twisting. 2011 Nov 30 hannah Webster The Minaret (Univ of Tampa) 2011/11/30/article20474 like all innovations in social networking, hashtag- ging requires a bit of etiquette. —hashtagged ppl adj 1: (of a comment) including a hashtag 1a 2008 may 24 rick Turoczy Twitter here’s a pipe that will let you track Portland @startupweekend hashtagged tweets via rSS, be they #swpdx or #pdxsw http:// 2008 july 4 Andy mabbett Mabblog (blog) http://pigsonthewing Tags in twitter are pre- fixed with a hash symbol (#), hence the name. A “hash-tagged” message might look like: i live in #england. 2009 may 27 janet K Keeler St Petersburg (Fla) Times 1e (Factiva) hashtagged subjects, when searched, help users find updates. 2: (of a word or phrase) prefixed with a hash symbol (#) to form a hashtag 1a 2011 oct 13 Twitter support documentation (archived) http:// 49309-what-are-hashtags-symbols Clicking on a hashtagged word in any mes- sage shows you all other Tweets in that category. […] hashtagged words that become very popular are often Trending Topics. 2013 Feb 4 Peter DiCampo Salon _crowd/ Youstarttolookattheirfriends’photosaswell,andatthehashtagged cities they live in. —hashtagger, hash-tagger n one who hashtags 4 2008 jan 1 ontario emperor mrontemps (blog) http://mrontemp.blogspot .com/2008/01/hashtagging-challenges-when-events.html What if the events covered by the hashtaggers occur at different times at different locations? 2009 Sept 5 Guardian (UK) 5 (Factiva; subhead & text) hashtagger’s guide to the galaxy. / marvin, the original Paranoid Android, will be tweeting live from october’s hitchcon at the South bank, celebrating the 30th anniversary of hitchhiker’s [Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams]. 2011 jan 9 Sun-Herald (Australia) 13 (Factiva) The announcement, which has sent hash- taggers and music fans alike into a total flurry, was accompanied by a racy new photo of Gaga. 2012 jan 22 jessica Anderson Columbia (Univ) Spectator (New York) Although this trend originated within the realm of Twitter, this innovative tac- tic swiftly spread to inspire users of other social networks to become seasoned hashtaggers, and in this case, the [Columbia Univ class of] 2015ers. 

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