Hashtag 101: What are they, and why do we need ’em?

If you use social media, you have seen a hashtag. No, scratch that. In 2014, if you watch TV, or read magazines or attend conferences, you’ve seen a hashtag. But I still have folks ask me all the time what a hashtag is, why they exist, and why in the world you would want to use them. So, here’s a hashtag primer for you.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase without spaces preceeded by a #. #hashtag is a Hashtag. #hashtagsarecool is also one. The idea of using # to denote a keyword actually started in the 1970s in computer programming languages. In 2007, this really smart open source guy named Chris Messina proposed using the # on Twitter as a way to mark posts belonging to a certain group. Twitter users quickly adopted them, and in 2009, Twitter started to hyperlink hashtags within Tweets to a page of search results for that hashtag. Facebook and Instagram now do that, too. You can also type a particular hashtag into the search box on Twitter or Facebook to get posts that include it.

Why do hashtags exist?

Hashtags are a way to sort out the myriad of content being posted on social media to find a group of content about a certain topic. They are essentially a way to aggregate content about one particular thing. For example, if you are interested in finding content about the upcoming Sochi Olympics, a quick look at the hashtag #Olympics on Twitter will yield all kinds of tweets about them.

Why would you use hashtags?

Well, as I said above, you can use them to find content about a particular topic. A couple of hashtags I look at every day are #twill, which started out meaning “Twitter Illinois” and has evolved to be a hashtag for posts about statewide politics in Illinois, and #southernillinois, which is growing in popularity and is pretty self-explanatory – it’s about things of interest in Southern Illinois.

Media will sometimes assign a hashtag to a particular topic in hopes that they can sort out social media posts about that topic. For example, WSIL asks users to tag weather photos they post on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter with #wsilwx, and the weather team sometimes uses that user-generated content on the air. Ads for many TV shows and movies include hashtags now, as well. If you watched the #GoldenGlobes, you could have looked at that hashtag on Twitter or Facebook to see what others were saying during the show. That can be especially fun during live events like award shows, because it can be like having a live running commentary in your living room.

In-person events you may attend, like business conferences and fun stuff like festivals, will often have a hashtag for participants to use so that everyone can follow along with the online conversation. Taylor Swift’s tour last year asked her audiences to tag social media posts with #redtour. Locally, HerrinFesta Italiana uses the hashtag #HerrinFesta. Some folks have even started assigning a hashtag to gatherings like weddings, so that they can more easily find pictures guests posted of the event.

A final use of hashtags is just for fun. People will hashtag posts with phrases just to be funny. A friend and I sometimes tag posts (and even texts to each other) #teamhotmess, because that’s what we jokingly call ourselves. Folks will often tag posts sarcastically with #winning, a leftover remnant of Charlie Sheen’s very public meltdown a few years back. And if you’re still not getting this trend, let Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake explain it for you:

About Leigh Caldwell

Leigh M. Caldwell is Director of Social Media and Digital Marketing at Harness TechED. She is a content creator and marketing strategist with two decades of experience in social, online, print and broadcast media. Leigh is a native of West Frankfort, Illinois, and a Southern Illinois University alum.


  1. Great explanation, and one of my all time favorite youtube vids. 🙂

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