How did the hashtag become the most popular button on the keyboard?

This symbol, like so many other irritating things, was spawned by Twitter


Air quotes used to be a reliable indicator of the best person to avoid at parties. You know, the guy who surrounds every other word with ironic crooked fingers because he doesn’t have a personality. David Brent loved to use air quotes. And if The Office were still on air now, I’m fairly sure that he would love to use “hashtag” in his banter. It’s an irritating verbal tic, spawned like so many irritating things – celebrity spats, selfies, Sally Bercow’s career – by Twitter. On Twitter, it is a handy way of grouping and searching for topics. Off Twitter, it is meaningless emphasis and a handy way of signalling that you’re quite annoying. Sorry, #quiteannoying.

Either way, the humble hash key, once useful only for telephone banking and Odeon booking lines, is having a moment. Hidden amid more useful punctuation on the keyboard (or on a Mac, not there at all), it is now ubiquitous as social media shorthand. If you have something to say about #Prism, for example, and want to make sure everyone (lawfully) sees it too, and then to see everyone’s posts on it – # is the key.

The idea of grouping by using # on Twitter was first trialled in 2007. Since then, it has been enthusiastically if erratically embraced. Millions now watch television with one eye on the fast spooling #theapprentice or #bbcqt feeds. Susan Boyle’s record company, on the other hand, didn’t get quite the buzz it was looking for with #susanalbumparty. Elsewhere their original function has been all but lost with hashtags used for ironic asides, marketing aids or simply trivia – #breakfast.

Now Facebook is stealing the hashtag for its site, too. It’s about sharing and connecting, it says. With advertisers, I say. It’s also a sign that hashtag is here to stay, another dubious gift to language from social media. Laughing out loud has gone from a real thing that humans do to an internet abbreviation and then back into speech as LOL. People say “sad face” to one another instead of really expressing sadness. Looked at in this context, the hashtag – a meaningless, fairly useless, often silly tool for oversharing – might just be the perfect symbol of our times.

Top point from Caroline Lucas

Femen’s bare breasts and Pussy Riot’s neon balaclavas are all very striking but sometimes simple shouts loudest. Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, wore a T-shirt with the slogan No More Page Three during a Commons debate on media sexism this week. There was nothing flashy about it, certainly nothing to shock anyone who grew up in the 80s surrounded by Katharine Hamnett protest singlets and chests shouting Frankie Says Relax in black and white. It got Jimmy Hood, the Labour chair of the session, hot under the collar nevertheless. “Order! Order! I would ask the Honorable Member to respect the standards of dress and to put her jacket back on please”, he bleated, in a classic Weird World of Westminster moment. 

Lucas – now brandishing some Page 3 nipples which sent Hood into further panicky spasms of Order! Order! Order! - pointed out the irony that her baggy t-shirt could be taken as offensive when tabloids featuring topless young girls were on sale in eight different outlets on the parliamentary estate. Provocation, reaction, smackdown - it was a perfect piece of protest.

It also raised an intriguing question – what are these “standards of dress” that must be upheld in the House?  The only stipulation in the parliamentary rulebook is that military insignia and uniforms must not be worn, while the custom, it states, is for “gentlemen members to wear jackets and ties”. The custom for “lady members” remains a mystery. One t-shirt, two points excellently made.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Joinery Shop Foreman

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Joinery Shop Foreman is required to join a p...

Recruitment Genius: Bench Joiner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Bench Joiner is required to join a privately...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Recruitment and Sales People wanted f...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

For the sake of the millions of girls who miss vital schooling during their periods, we must dismantle the 'menstrual taboo'

Emily Wilson Smith

Rick Santorum’s presidential bid isn’t funny, it’s terrifying

Sirena Bergman
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada