Is this the most powerful #innovation in the history of social media?

history of social media

By Mark Schaefer

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the use of hashtags to organize thoughts, people, and news across social media. And I believe it is the single most important social media innovation of all time.

At first blush, you might think I’ve lost my mind. Hashtags are everywhere, about as profound as a comma or any other punctuation mark, right?

But think about it this way. The hashtag has become the index card system of the web. It is social media’s most important way to organize information. It’s critical to discovering people, content, and ideas.

Following a hashtag also organizes people. The people following a hashtag from every corner of the earth might be starting a company, a discussion that leads to innovation, or the overthrow of a government.

And the hashtag is one of the most important components of monetizing the web. Twitter makes a significant portion of its income from actually selling top hashtag trends.

Hashtags are the cornerstone elements for communicating everything from disaster relief to memes.

Get the picture? That little thing is IMPORTANT.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Back to the beginning

On August 23, 2007, the Twitter hashtag was born. Invented by Chris Messina (@chrismessina), the first tweet with a hashtag was “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

According to an article in, the inspiration did not take off for quite a while. “In the beginning people really hated them,” Messina said. “People didn’t understand why we needed hashtags, and the biggest complaint was that people just didn’t like how they looked.”

Messina pitched his hashtag idea to Twitter’s execs, but the Twitter team deemed the hashtag too nerdy.

Adoption of the hashtag lagged until October 2007, when people tweeting about forest fires in San Diego started using the same hashtag on each tweet so news about the event was more easily searchable. Later that year, hashtags were adopted by some political campaigns, and the tradition caught on quickly from there.

If Messina hadn’t come up with his innovation, chances are we would have eventually found something to do the trick but the simple # has become one of the most elegant and important information solutions on the web.


Hashtags and social good

To be clear, you don’t need to use hashtags to conduct a filtering search on Twitter. And if millions of people are tweeting about a new Star Wars trailer, all at the same time, the odds that your tweet will surface and find a huge audience are minuscule.

But Robert Hernandez, a digital journalism professor featured in a New York Times article, said “there is still something wonderful” about watching a community come together in real time “only because of a hashtag.”

Mr. Hernandez pointed to #yesallwomen, which allowed hundreds of thousands of strangers to discuss violence against women and reveal their anger and horror about abuse and sexism. Mr. Messina cited #blacklivesmatter as an example of a hashtag that is “powerful and necessary.”

He doesn’t think badly of people who use #waffle to label a photo of a waffle. That person is “trying to express something,” he said, and you have to take the good with the bad.

Mr. Hernandez is also a fan of hashtags; he’s a co-founder of a weekly Twitter Chat about online journalism called #wjchat. But he acknowledged that they can grate and irritate.

“Like anything that becomes popular — especially if it was organic and grass roots — corporations take it over and incorporate it into marketing,” Mr. Hernandez said. People are unlikely to use hashtags created by brands, he added, no matter how much they are promoted.


SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Cartoon licensed from The Marketoonist

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