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


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, 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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  • #how#did#we#ever#get#along#without#them? 🙂 Cheers! Kaarina P.S. Caveat: when I see dozens of them (like my example above:) in one post or tweet or g+ or whatever, I do admit my eyes glaze over and I stop paying attention.

  • Todd Lyden

    Mark, thoughts on the overuse issue?
    Seems like folks- especially on Twitter, because of instagram people, are really starting to tire of it…

  • I can see the importance of using hashtags, but I personally hate them…especially when people #usetheminsentences #allthetime. Gives me a headache. But I enjoyed the history of the hashtag, it has become a cornerstone in our social. Some people just need to learn how to use it better. #Truth

  • I get a kick out of how they have filtered out into general use. It’s like air quotes, hashtag, these days. LOL For me it’s almost automatic now. I have to remind myself that not everyone lives in hashtag world. #LOL

  • I think too many people are foolish with hashtags which greatly diminishes their value. I seen a tweet to-day with the hashag #free. What is the point of that? I think the majority of hashtagging on Twitter provides little or not value and a small percentage provides a lot of value. Ian

  • Danielle G. Conte

    Searching topics by hashtags are a great window into conversations that are already happening. Like anything, it’s about balance.

  • Grace Dreyer

    Great article! I was around in the early days of Twitter and the #hashtag, and saw (and did) a good deal of hashtag abuse, but I need them now to (1) find my weekly chats on Twitter, and (2) find a group of people I’m meeting at a conference later this summer

  • Gordon Diver

    Unfortunately true Ian, but the potential is great.

  • I can’t fight it : ) It’s part of life unfortunately.

  • Hum. I think “links” (RT, DM’s…) are more important than hashtags, although hashtags are important.

    Hashtag are still a “topic” approach, it is ok to navigate “things” that don’t really have a context. Whoever you are, you’re probably use the same hashtags for sports events, elections, disaster. But this is only good to look at the surface of the social web.

    If you want to go deep, you’ll have to look at social graph and tribes and it takes more than topics and hashtags. Here, all “networking signals” are critical as much as linguistic ones.

  • Would be interesting to look into IRC and see if hashtags were an idea that stemmed from there, I remember there being a lot of rooms in there with names like #webdev and #justnewyorkthings and stuff like that.

  • awesome examples Grace. Thanks!

  • Great comment. Really appreciate the excellent ideas here Dominiq,

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  • NenadSenic

    And let’s not forget the power of hashtag on Instagram. Gay Vaynerchuk writes about it in his latest book on social media. According to him, hashtags are gold on Instagram, without them it’s like you haven’t even posted a photo, if you want it to be seen by many.

  • I love this homage to the #hashtag!
    I educate a lot of small business owners in the use of Social Media tools and most struggle with the concept of #Hashtags. But often it only takes showing a few examples to show the power.

    With so many “Social Media experts” out there I am always surprised how often the power of a well designed #hashtag for events gets undervalued. Even social media conferences don’t always get that right.

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