I’d much prefer to make this drunk history of hashtags but I’m not funny and it’s not that interesting. So quick it is. To get the real story you have to ask Chris Messina but I kinda know Chris and kinda saw how this evolved.
Three things about hashtags you need to know are IRC, Foocamp, and Chris (and possibly Stowe Boyd who coined the term).
IRC or Internt Relay Chat is a messaging/chat protocol. You get yourself a chat client, you /attach yourself to a network say irc.mozilla.org and then you join a topic by doing /join #sometopic. And that’s where hashtags came from, it’s how you create a chat room on a specific topic. IRC is popular with software development, it’s just how you get things done. And it’s old school, like really, really old.
Where does Foocamp come in? Well, Foocamp was an adhoc meetup/conference of exclusive tech luminaries (e.g. Google founders and friends) created by Tim O’Reilly who does most of the books and conferences for the Tech industry. It’s exclusive and not open so thus came Barcamp (e.g. foobar or fubar) which was open to everybody. (I wanted to attend the first one in 2005 but I had something going on the following weekend. I also thought it was funny because the founders of Barcamp weren’t invited to Foocamp).
At these conferences, white boards and wikis and chat clients and all sorts of tools are used, and IRC chat is often used as a “back channel” to communicate in the background. You might have the one conference topic channel say #Barcamp and then tons more based on whatever people want. It’s a good way to communicate and a good way to get introverts to talk too.
Anyway, the rest of the story I don’t really know. I guess Chris asked the Twitter guys (and we’re all in the same area, it’s a small circle) to use # for #barcamp which makes total sense. At this time Barcamp had Matt involved, founder of WordPress around, and so all sorts of communication tools we’re being used and tested out. Note that Twitter was founded by the Blogger guys (which sold to Google and now they’ve founded Medium!, yikes), so like I said, these guys all knew each other.
So that’s pretty much it. Hashtags weren’t meant to be abused #so #that #every #word was hashtagged. It does make sense when you want to follow a topic, but allowing just anyone to create a hashtag (not the person who wants to start the topic), certainly makes it less valuable. But it’s still early, early days (Twitter hasn’t even IPOd yet) so I’m sure the whole hashtag phenomenon/protocols will work itself out.
Hashtags though have filled a void left by AOL Keyword (remember that) since urls are sometimes taken via squatting and it’s just easier #hashtag something especially in a commercial or print ad even.