Last updateFri, 22 Feb 2019 1pm

What is a hashtag?

A question from a reader recently showed up in my inbox. The question is “What is a hashtag?”  Coincidentally the question I received arrived at about the same time as the date many people will consider the ten-year anniversary of the creation of the hashtag.

Defining what is a hashtag is much easier today than it would have been before 2014 because that is when this new word was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary.  A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#), used to identify a topic of interest and facilitate being able to search for it.  English translation:  A hashtag is simply a unique or almost-unique string of characters intended to make online searches more accurate.

Hashtags are used in an attempt to make it easier for others to find the search results they are seeking.  I will use as an example the name of a luxury bus company here in Mexico.  When the management of that company chose the name for the company they most likely were not thinking of what it might be like to search for the name.  I refer to the bus line named “Ave” which is pronounced ah-vay.  Try doing a Google search for “Ave” and the search engine will only find more than a billion results many of which are abbreviations for avenue.  Try to refine the search by specifying “Ave bus” and that still produces more than a hundred million hits.  The problem is that “Ave” simply appears in so many places on the internet that it is a challenge to adequately narrow down the search to what you are looking for.

Most people associate hashtags with the social networking site Twitter.com and that is where the practice really took hold.  It was during the Southern California wildfires of 2007 that growing numbers of people turned to the internet and social networking sites for the latest news updates.  A lot of the most up-to-the-minute news came from people posting to their social networks but the problem for many was finding those tweets.  Searching for “fire evacuation” might display results for the new building codes for fire escapes in Europe, or searching “fire woods” might display advertisements for stores selling firewood.  What people threatened by Southern California wildfires desperately needed to know was current information on road closures, neighborhood evacuations, etc. along with a quick way to search for that information online.

San Diego web developer Nate Ritter was posting that information gleaned from several news sources to his Twitter account and Google employee Chris Messina is credited with suggesting he use the unique hashtag “#sandiegofire”.  Word soon spread that anyone needing up-to-the-minute news updates on the fire situation needed only search Twitter for “#sandiegofire” to find it.  Since then other hashtags have become ubiquitous on social networking sites.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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