Who would ever have thought that the pound symbol, once most recognizable as the least useful telephone button, would ascend to greatness?
But with the rise of Twitter, that innocuous little # has taken on great power. Stick it in front of a word or group of words connected without spaces (#likethis), and suddenly that pound symbol (a.k.a. hash mark) harnesses the chaotic flood of tweets into searchable, contextual and even sometimes meaningful bits of information.
On Friday, the American Dialect Society proclaimed “hashtag” as its word of the year. Finally, the humble symbol has received its due recognition.
“Hashtag” beat out contenders like YOLO, fiscal cliff and Gangnam style for the distinction. While those words all have merit, they also have something in common. They are 2012 words that aren’t likely to carry over much beyond the first few months of 2013. Like YOLO itself (perhaps), these words only live once.
Hashtag, on the other hand, has been a persistent little bugger. It’s been with us for more than five years now, almost as long as Twitter itself. (According to GigaOM,the first tweet to ever carry a hashtag was hatched on Aug. 27, 2007.) And it’s likely to continue to live long after our long international Gangnam style nightmare is over.
But why did it take so long for hashtag to gain traction? Ben Zimmer, who chairs the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, explains that 2012 was the year the hashtag transcended Twitter and became a truly multimedia phenomenon.
“This was the year when the hashtag became a ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk,” Zimmer said. “In the Twittersphere and elsewhere, hashtags have created instant social trends, spreading bite-sized viral messages on topics ranging from politics to pop culture.”
Think about all the TV shows (and more recently, bowl games) that include hashtags in their promos, or those annoying Facebook connections who affix hashtag to their posts as though they’re on Twitter (even if, or especially if, they’ve never tweeted).
Yes, the hashtag is hear to stay. On Twitter, where there’s a hashtag for everything, there’s even a #hashtag for hashtag. So it’s fitting that it has gained this recognition after struggling in relative obscurity for five long years.
Well played, hashtag. #wellplayed.