#ExplainThis: The hashtag trend

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Published on September 03, 2014 with No Comments

When Hines Ward announced his retirement from football after 14 seasons, his name became worthy of a hashtag, or #, marking it as a trending topic on Twitter. Whether it’s Dancing with the Stars, #DWTS, #RyanSeacrest or #ChurchyBusinessNames, it won’t become a trend if it doesn’t have that hashtag. Back in 2010, around 11 percent of tweets were marked with the hashtag.

In 2007, Chris Messina, not the actor, was rejected by Twitter executives when he proposed that hashtags could be used in this way. He even issued the first Tweet with the symbol. But they thought it was too geeky. Undaunted, Messina persevered with the hashtag, mostly alone. At his suggestion, people began using it to tweet about the 2007 San Diego forest fires. Soon after, the hashtag got its big break thanks to an attempt to keep congress in session to vote on an energy bill – #dontgo.

Image representing Chris Messina as depicted i...

Image by Peggy Dyer / One Million Faces via CrunchBase

The symbol was originally known as the number sign. It was also called a “hash mark” in the Commonwealth. Around here it’s known as the “pound” sign because printers once used a similar sign to indicate pounds in weight. Across the pond in the U.K., the pound sign is £, for their currency. The official name of the hashtag is the octothorpe because it has eight points. Along the way some have called it the tic-tac-toe sign.

We can credit the folks at Bell Labs for popularizing the octothorpe symbol when they added it to telephones in the 1960s. They needed two extra keys for touch-tone dialing. Sadly only people of a certain generation might remember touch-tone dialing – or was that touch-tone punching? Incidentally, the other key from Bell Labs is the asterisk or “star” key. No one definitively knows the origin of the word “octothorpe.” One story says that someone from Bell Labs coined it as a tribute to an athlete named, Jim Thorpe.

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