The changing meaning of hashtags

What hashtags mean is changing

First suggested by Chris Messina back in 2007 as a way of sending messages to groups, the hashtag has come a long way. It’s become a rallying cry (), a chance to join in with your favourite media content () or a way of keeping up with what’s new (#FridayFeeling).

But at heart, it’s just a form of language, a way of communicating. And like many things, it’s meaning is continually being (re)defined by its use. We’ve seen some signs of this in our work.

The basics.

Hashtags work as a connector. They let you find and follow content you’re interested in. And, at the same time, they let you draw attention to your own content. They’re democratic, popularity wins. If you capture the moment () or a spirit of the time ( ) it can quickly take off – engaging thousands, or millions of people around a single theme.

New forms are emerging.

More and more, we’re seeing hashtags replace prose – sometimes completely. We’ve listened to people communicate just in hashtags, like some form of haiku for the social media generation.

When a tweet’s composed mainly of hashtags it blends inclusion with meaning. They’re using the same tools to communicate and engage. Each hashtag paints a different part of the story, adding different layers of meaning. This is especially prevalent on Instagram, where apparently a picture does need a few hashtags to tell the full story.


Why’s this important?

Well if you just look at the image, you’re missing the rest. As researchers, we need to be aware of how hashtags are being used to add layers of additional meaning to text and pictures.

There’s something else, Hashtags are escaping their digital constraints, crossing the species gap. We’re beginning to hear them in the street, at meetings, in conversation and at dinner parties. A recent example I heard was:

“I can’t believe how many hipsters there are around here #manbun”

They’re being used to add contrast, sarcasm, irony, humour and all sorts of other meaning to what people are saying.

I’m scared. It feels like someone’s dusted off “air quotes” from the 90s’ Not all change is for the best.

A final word?

#sorrykaren #tulum #itwasfunnyatthetime #weekoff #manbun #toocoolforus #firsttimeyoga #takemeback

About us

We’re an insights agency that uses social data to help brands + their agencies find new opportunities for growth.

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