I want to propose a radical idea today.

The most important single social media innovation of all time is the hashtag.

At first blush, you might think that I have 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 is 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.

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

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

Getting the picture here? 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 gigaom.com, 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.


Illustration courtesy of The Marketoonist

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions. IBM had no editorial control of this content.
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