#HashtagTurnsTen: hooray for slacktivism, sarcasm and celebrities
by Natalie Millhouse
From being denounced as a linguistic tumour to being embraced as poetic paralanguage, over the last decade hashtags have divided and united online users even more than when the Oxford English Dictionary added OMG and LOL to its list. Linguists, writers, advertising folk, marketers, politicians, scholars and everyone else in the known universe has contributed to the astronomical rise of hashtags in some way. Collectively, we have witnessed them spill out of Twitter into Instagram and Facebook, and surge far beyond online use into common vernacular – and would you believe it, they’re now hitting double figures. Yep, the hashtag as we know it is 10 years old.
This got me thinking, where have these often hilarious, sometimes serious and occasionally brilliant juxtapositions to what otherwise would be very ordinary sentences taken us? Well, given its origins in searchability, it’s a question I felt only the internet could answer. So, with Google at the ready, I got searching to discover the hashtag’s humble beginnings, what it got up to during its inaugural decade, and how embedded it is in our lives. Please don’t go expecting a comprehensive list of the top hashtags to ever have trended here, that isn’t #mysuperpower and would be more tedious than #waitingforthesocceroostowintheworldcup. Instead, it’s a top-trending-ish timeline to represent how far we’ve all come together (and possibly how much further we have to go…) thanks to the hashtag.
It’s not funny, inspiring, or even very particularly memorable, but this is the Tweet that changed everything. On 23 August 2007, it was casually released into the world by @ChrisMessina, as in, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” and like many introduced species, it has flourished beyond initial understanding or expectations and has cemented itself as an integral player in social media speak. #barcamp launched an era when hashtags were still innocent, that is, they were purely used for search and tracking purposes, devoid of humour, sarcasm and emotion, or even political commentary. Spoiler alert, all that is yet to come.
It was still early days, the little blighter was only one for goodness sake, but that didn’t stop the #hashtag from giving the world a glimpse of what it was capable of during the 2008 American election. Since the ‘Web 2.0’ socialisation of the internet, 2008 marked the first real glimpse of just how powerful social media was in the political arena. It allowed an unprecedented uniting of supporters, strategists, advertisers and voters during Barack Obama’s inaugural campaign. It has actually been said that Barack Obama and social media changed politics in 2008 and @BarackObama was praised in many media sources because he, “accomplished unprecedented levels of community engagement from a national politician.” – Mashable. And of course the campaign was tied altogether with the inspirational and empowering slogan, come hashtag, #YesWeCan. This success certainly wasn’t all thanks to #YesWeCan – in fact it probably only deserved ‘best and fairest’, with the awesomeness of a good YouTube clip being the real shining star. But as #YesWeCan later became #AskObama, the hashtag proved an accessible and simple tool to connect the masses with their political leaders…although some credit should surely go to the ground breaking work done for Kevin 07…and if you’re too young to remember Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election campaign then breathe a huge sigh of relief!
While these days, social media platforms are seen as aiding the death of democracy, back in 2009 they were seen as doing the opposite, both in Australia and internationally. The hashtag #IranElection was one of the top trending news topics for the year and Mashable wrote a great piece outlining its trajectory after the questionable election results gained traction on social media. #IranElection was used to unite and organise public responses, including rallies, riots and ultimately calls for justice. However, in actual popularity, #IranElection was pipped at the post by #musicmonday, reminding us that hashtags can also be useful for sharing your favourite tune with friends, and/or the networked masses, just for kicks. #musicmonday was so popular it surprisingly also outdid the death of Michael Jackson, the cause of a near death experience for the internet. Plus, who could forget the #swineflu pandemic causing a wave of misinformation to whip the world up into a fear frenzy, including people believing you could contract the virus by eating infected meat and many other social media gems – all tracked by the hashtag of course. And did anyone else get swept up in the #balloonboy saga…or was that just me?
Waaaayy before Justin Bieber became the pin-up for Hillsong, he was the hashtag on many fingertips (pro and hell-no), but without a public meltdown, talent or personality, a celebrity hashtag like #Belieber can be more than a little boring. So let’s put aside social events and celebrities, because according to an article on Adweek, ‘Hashtags were Most Popular Trending Topic in 2010’, anyway. Which essentially meant it was the year we were witness to the true public embracing of hashtags as the sarcastic asides and poetically timed nuggets of joy – the punchier and more exclamatory version if you will, as brilliantly outlined in the New Yorker article ‘Hash’. We saw the rise of the character-filled, complicated hashtags. The sort of hashtag that isn’t intended to unite users, create movements or rally for a cause. Cue the likes of #lifeisshortbuytheshoes, #itsnotyouitsme, #catswilltakeovertheworld and insert all of your favourites here. You know, the hashtags that are for killing time, kicking back and entertaining yourself. And let’s face it, it’s the #shitpeoplesay that makes hashtags so awesome.
In the year that Instagram got in on the hashtag movement, bringing with it so much more than #nofilter, it was during the public meltdown of @charliesheen that #winning burst onto the scene. The Gizmodo article, ‘How the hashtag is ruining the English language’ describes it like this, “It took off as the lowbrow badge of choice across Twitterdom […] You could say the saddest heap of shit, add #winning, and that seven letter thumbs up would make it ok.” Time Magazine featured it in their ‘Top 10 Buzzwords’ and were a little more cutting, “Charlie Sheen had solidified a definition for the term that goes something like this: winning (v.): “participating in an ostensibly drug-induced, highly public flameout, during which one loses an incredibly lucrative job and, subsequently, the respect of the American people.” Or more, succinctly: winning (v.): losing.” However you look at it, #winning helped catapult hashtags into every element of life – that is, ‘real people’ actually say this ‘out loud.’
While hashtags were now established as humorous asides, they were still a tool of activism and revealed how powerful they could be with the Kony 2012 campaign led by Invisible Children creating an online storm of support, as well as some monumental backlash, from global experts, as documented in The Guardian’s article Kony 2012: what’s the real story. It was a defining moment in hashtag use, proving this social media tool wasn’t just for marketing (although that was a huge criticism of the Invisible Children approach), for having a laugh at ourselves and others…or even trolling. It was a legitimate and effective tool for uniting a global public – even if many were essentially jumping on the bandwagon, keen to be part of a bigger movement, without even knowing the full story. That may sound a little snippety, but about now is probably a great time to raise the point of the soundbite nature of the hashtag. Amongst its many capabilities, as listed above, it also has the uncanny ability to reduce very complicated issues down to a few characters, often loaded with a healthy dose of public pitchfork judgement. But on a lighter note, there was also this gem #susanalbumparty (hint: you need to read it the right way) that made The Guardian’s Top 5 Twitter Hashtag PR disasters.
Buzzfeed said it well, “Ninety-nine percent of the time that you take a selfie it is pretty obvious.” But despite that being true, #selfie really found its saturation point in 2013, along with the likes of #tbt, #foodporn and #latergram, all thanks to the monumental rise of Instagram use. This is also the year when according to the blog post, “How #Hashtags changed the way we talked, “Hashtags escaped twitter, and spread, like a plague, to Facebook…” yep, as reported in Mashable through to just about every other news outlet, including Adweek, the U.S’s ABC News and Britain’s Telegraph, Facebook got on board with the unstoppable hashtag. Although it was a little bit like when your younger siblings start doing something, and doing it better, so you have to begrudgingly get on board…
The ALS charity #icebucketchallenge – which according to The Guardian wasn’t ‘slacktivism’ after all, actually resulting in funding a medical breakthrough for ALS sufferers – was everywhere and there are compilation videos on YouTube to prove it. Anyone who was anyone was giving it a go and the results were mostly hilarious, but importantly, actually effective. The other big hashtag of 2014 was, unfortunately, #Ferguson, which reportedly amassed upwards of 27 million mentions in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. This event renewed calls for racial equality alongside the already active, #BlackLivesMatter, and sadly cemented social media’s role in creating a global voice and steering social activism – slack or otherwise.
There were some big moments in history that unfortunately were either directly or indirectly associated with terrorism in 2015, and some hashtags that followed were #JeSuisCharlie and #IStandWithAhmed, but to prove life isn’t all bad, #LoveWins was also a hashtag standout. It was at the frontline of what became a massive social media celebration, as the collective public (and not just Americans), responded with positive posts, tweets and photos to marriage equality being granted in the USA. And where is Australia still on this? Just #dontmentiontheplebiscite!? The somewhat less life-changing #blueandblack also trended after one dress caused a social media storm, proving it really doesn’t always take much to ‘make it’ on social media – and sadly, who can forget #CeciltheLion, RIP.
As much as it pains me to write it, 2016 saw the arrival of one of the strangest, most orange and often disturbing trains ever to exist on social media, the #TrumpTrain. It came with more inexplicable Presidential Tweets than anyone could ever have imagined, direct from the inner workings of @realDonaldTrump. Social media and their powerful accomplice, the hashtag, are now further embedded in politics with the New York Times even dedicating articles to The Top Political Tweets and Hashtags of 2016. We all know it’s not the first year hashtags were playing havoc with public opinion. However, the stakes seem to be getting higher – or am I just buying into the fear? Although North Korea may think otherwise. On a lighter note, #Rio2016 actually came out on top of Twitter’s list of high ranking hashtags, followed closely by #PokemonGo…of course.
Here we are…2017
As this massive anniversary for the humble hashtag rolls around, the calendar year is obviously not over yet. Terrorism and public grief have had more than their fair share of presence on social media already in 2017, unfortunately, including our own #MelbourneAttack. Yet it is heartening to see something like #RoomsforManchester getting traction to help fellow humans in the wake of such tragedies. Or on a completely different note, there’s the recent tweet by American Carter Wilkinson, AKA @carterjwm, featuring his now (internet) famous #NuggsForCarter hashtag. It started with @carterjwm Tweeting “Yo @Wendys how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets,” and @Wendys replying with, “18 Million,”…and so, of course, millions of people have got on board to help him out with the official Twitter blog announcing, “With 3.42M Retweets, it has officially surpassed Ellen’s infamous selfie as the most Retweeted Tweet of all time.” Carter has a long way to go to reach 18 million and has no chance of surpassing #love, which is one of the highest ranking hashtags on Instagram with over 1 billion references, but hey, go Carter!
So it’s officially #HashtagTurnsTen party time
Woohoo!! Any thoughts on what will shine in the hashtag’s tenth year? I have my #fingerscrossed for something upbeat, meaningful and funny. Too much to ask of a hashtag? I think it can handle it…