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The hashtag (#) just turned 11. Is it time to celebrate?

On the hashtag's 10-year anniversary last year, Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone recounted how the hashtag symbol came to be so iconic Photo: Shutterstock
The hashtag(#) turned 10 last year. Last week it turned a year older. 

In my younger days, the symbol # used to denote the number sign. In Western markets it stood for the pound sign. Word nerds called it the octothorpe. But for the past 11 years since it was first used on Twitter, the '#' is famous as the hashtag.

Today the hashtag is not restricted to just Twitter (an average usage of 140 million times a day) but is equally frequently used on Facebook, Instagram and every other social media platform. More importantly, the hashtag today transcends social media, and has started to connote a higher purpose, and has become the unifying symbol for a body of thought (or resistance) … #MeToo for example spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media (as also traditional mass media) to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It is today a borderless worldwide movement that makes headlines every other day demolishing lofty reputations of celebrity superstars and haloed organizations. The hashtag before the MeToo has become a global unifier, a universal beacon that connects millions to the idea and the protest. 

On the hashtag's 10-year anniversary last year, Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone recounted how the hashtag symbol came to be so iconic.

Stone's colleague, web marketing specialist Chris Messina's "proposal was simple, useful, and fun - just like Twitter," Stone said in a blog he posted last year. "Because brevity is essential on Twitter, he suggested using the 'pound' or 'hash' character common on phones (this was pre-iPhone) to create groups of related Tweets. It was an undeniably elegant proposal, but I really needed to get back to work. I turned back to my computer screen to help get Twitter back up and running, hurriedly ending the conversation with a sarcastic, 'Sure, we'll get right on that'."  

Well, Messina went ahead and did what Stone had suggested, that is get it right. The first Twitter hashtag was #barcamp, with Messina asking in his message, "how do you feel about using #(pound) for groups. As in #barcamp?". The rest as they say is history. 

Messina called the hashtag his unique and everlasting 'gift to the internet community'. The hashtag launched BarCamp, a network of conferences and workshops about tech and the web, but as Stone put it, the hashtag opened up a much larger context for communication, "using hashtags on Twitter, people worldwide have made this platform their microphone, shaped culture, and changed the world." Starting with #OccupyWallStreet, a progressive protest movement that began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district, the hashtag received instant global attention spawning a surge in the movement against economic inequality worldwide. Each of #IStandWithAhmed, #NotOneMore, #Kony2012, #BlackLivesMatter, #WhyIStayed, #YesAllWomen, #ShoutYourAbortion, #icebucketchallenge, #NODAPL, #Oromoprotests, #BringBackOurGirls, #Sosblakaustralia, #IdleNoMore, #AmINext, #UmbrellaRevolution, #PrayforParis, #Hallyu and #ArabSpring are now part of contemporary world history. The hashtag started as a way to organize topics in an orderly manner; it became a way to organize causes, social movements and even political revolutions. So much so, the media created a new moniker, Hashtag Activism. 

Instagram actually releases a list of the World's Most Hashtagged Cities. The 2017 pecking order shows the Top 20 as: #London, #NYC, #Paris, #Dubai, #Istanbul, #Miami, #LosAngeles, #Barcelona, #Moscow, #Chicago, #Tokyo, #Toronto, #Berlin, #LasVegas, #Madrid, #HongKong, #Amsterdam, #Sydney, #SanFrancisco and #Bangkok. #London topped the list because it received 88,780,832 posts on Instagram (converting into 59,850 posts daily), with a growth rate of 38% over the previous year. NYC was only marginally behind with 88,512,814 posts. These statistics are gleaned from the Hashtag the World study which monitors the popularity of cities on Instagram and has become a barometer of sorts for the travel industry worldwide to predict tourist interest, and travel flows for the future. However it is not always good news when city names or names of places become hashtags. #Charlottesville, #Ferguson and #PrayforOrlando all became synonymous with deadly events. So also #AllForKerala. 

Politics too has adopted the hashtag with both love, and venom. #ThanksObama has been used sarcastically by detractors of the former president, and sincerely by his fans. President Trump has been known to use the hashtag both to fire up his support base, and to attack as well as to hit back his enemies. Donald Trump's campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, became #MAGA. His tweets about the media are often punctuated with #fakenews. In September 2013 the Cuban foreign ministry @CubaMINREX used the hashtag #GiveMeFive to push for the release of five (#LosCinco) Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage in the United States. In India political debate and controversy have had their share of hashtag usage. In 2017, #Mannkibaat, #jallikattu and #GST were the top rankers in India. #MumbaiRains, #TripleTalaq, #Demonetisation, #SwachhBharat and #Aadhaar followed. 

Natural disasters now have the hashtag almost as a part of mandatory branding. #hurricanemaria (109,313 posts), #hurricaneirma (876,589 posts) and #hurricane (1,322,249 posts) are indicative of the traffic generated by tweets and tags when nature decides to play up. 

How social interactions and peer conversations have been changed by the hashtag can best be illustrated by #ThrowbackThursday, a.k.a. #tbt. Social media users often post nostalgic pictures of their past accompanied by the hashtag #TBT or #tbt or #ThrowbackThursday to relive past experiences and kindle nostalgia. The hashtag got created by a sneaker-specific blog named Nice Kicks which began a practice of regular postings (on Thursdays) of photos of old basketball footwear in 2006, titling the series "Throwback Thursday". Since then, the slogan has blown up to the point where #TBT has been used on Instagram over 200 million times! #FlashbackFriday (also #FollowFriday and #FF) was born out of necessity, some say. It became the hashtag that afforded a second chance for social media lovers to upload a photo if they may have forgotten on Thursday!! Similarly, #MondayMotivation took birth to neutralize Monday Blues. It became the cheer leader for positive quotes and uplifting messages on the first working day of the week. 

One of the most famous trending hashtags in recent times has been #ThreeWordsToLiveBy. Tweets ranged from silly to serious, from #EatMoreChicken and #ReadyForDinner to #RightAWrong, #NowOrNever and #NeverStopFailing. It was interesting to see what words people thought their lives were dictated or inspired by. One would have guessed that #ILoveYou should have won hands down, but it got close competition from #ThankYouGod. So the hashtag today provides instant data on consumer thinking that traditional market research would have taken weeks to track, that too at considerable cost.

When a reporter asked Charlie Sheen, "How did you survive taking all those drugs?", he replied, "I'm different. I have a different constitution. I have a different brain. I have a different heart. I got Tiger Blood." Hence was born the #TigerBlood hashtag (and its ally #winning) that took social media by storm igniting a worldwide debate on Gods, Tigers, immortality and invulnerability. Today the hashtag is so much a part of popular lexicon that it has crossed over to the domain of business, with the top-trending tweet this week being, "There's #TigerBlood at Tesla. Elon Musk is the new Charlie Sheen.#Winning."

 #MTVHottest and #SuperBowl today define TV viewing, changing forever how fans vote or comment. But it is the world of advertising that has been most impacted by the hashtag. The #KnowYourLemons campaign from the Worldwide Breast Cancer organization made crucial information accessible to everyone about breast cancer using a light-hearted concept to convey a message about a serious subject, and their Just Giving fundraising target got exceeded by 317%. The #WeAccept campaign from Airbnb saw an incredible response, with hundreds of thousands of supportive likes and comments on the theme of 'acceptance' helping Airbnb to present themselves as a more approachable and authentic company on social media. The #OpenYourWorld campaign of Heineken became a rage worldwide as it showed everyone how easy it was for people with opposite social and political views to accept each other, given the opportunity to share a beer! Coca-Cola's #ShareACoke, Always' #LikeAGirl, RedBull's #PutACanOnIt, Charmin's #TweetFromTheSeat, Calvin Klein's #MyCalvins, KFC's #NationalFriedChickenDay, Domino's #LetsDoLunch, Make-A-Wish's #SFBatKid and Expedia's #ThrowMeBack are amongst the best advertising campaigns of recent times, driven by the power of an evocative hashtag that channelized brand loyalty and united consumers to a common destination. All because of #ThanksTwitter, and of course other social media platforms. So, what was common in all of these campaigns? They were all simple, but effective; encouraged user engagement; embodied the personality of the brand; kept alive long-term momentum and increased brand awareness and familiarity, triggering UGC for the brand.

The usage of the hashtag by brands in India has helped create some memorable advertising in recent times. Raymond, for example, presented its Khadi Collection through #TheStoryRespun in a simple look-book format while Lenskart also encashed the brand equity of the Father of the Nation through #GandhiJiKaChashma. Vodafone's, #MakeMostOfNow campaign with the old couple became quite a rage on social media. Amazon India's #MomBeAGirlAgain also created ripples. The #OlxBreakUpChallenge was pretty visible too. But maximal impact came for brands like Hero Passion who heavily promoted #ZamanaHogaFida and Dhara oil (who ditched decades old favorite slug-line Dhara Dhara Shudh Dhara) to back #ZaraSaBadlaav. 

So, #HappyBirthdayHashtag. At 11, you have changed the world. At 11, you have changed the way we communicate. At 11, you have changed the way we express ourselves. No single symbol in recent history except perhaps '@' has quite had the impact on our lives that '#' has had. I am sure the hashtag will continue to define #change and #action in the #world of #tomorrow. 

(Dr. Sandeep Goyal has been in the advertising and media business for well over 3 decades and has been a witness to many a changing trend.)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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