The pound sign wasn't always known as a hashtag, nor was it always used to group messages on Twitter.
But now that the symbol has been established as a hashtag, it's changed the way we communicate, both online and in the real world.
Though it seems the hashtag is a more recent development, the metadata label was actually first used by the Internet Relay Chat in 1988, for purposes much like they're used for today -- to group messages, images, and other content. Around 20 years later, in August 2007, blogger Stowe Boyd is believed to have been the first to officially call the symbol "hashtags" in a blog post.
Less than two years after that, Twitter had adopted hashtags and anything with the pound symbol in front of it became hyperlinked and users could search Twitter for a hashtag and easily find and navigate through tweets that had used the tag.
Today, the use of hashtags has expanded beyond Twitter, and is also utilized on Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, Google Plus, Facebook and other sites.
Hashtags are now used in relation to politics, TV shows, breaking news, celebrities, activism and more. Pretty much every show on television has a hashtag associated with it, and sometimes a show will broadcast a specific hashtag for that episode so fans can talk to each other and see what others have to say on Twitter about what's happening during the airing.
This use of the hashtag was what it was intended for -- to group Tweets and communications together so people can use the meta tags to read about some event, person, or whatever.
But just as the hashtag can be used for appropriate and useful applications, so too can it be used for other purposes, and the hashtag quickly evolved from its primary function to being a way for people to provide social commentary, impart sarcasm, and other narratives on their social media posts.
And around when the hashtag's use started evolving is also when it started to spread to other websites, and now hashtags have become a part of our real conversations and have changed the way we communicate.
Hashtags are now used in texting and when we talk out loud, with people saying things like, "I can't wait to go to Florida this spring break, hashtag: no more snow" or "I found five bucks in my pocket today and was able to get a Starbucks drink, hashtag: blessed."
In the above video, which has garnered over 28.3 million views on YouTube, Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake show us how prevalent (and annoying) hashtags have become in conversations and how we like to throw hashtags in front of what we say, even if a hashtag isn't necessary or useful. (Thank you, Questlove, for telling them to shut up.)
"Tagging our thoughts -- usually bits of brainpower already whittled down to a few sentences on Twitter -- allows us to organize them, both online and in real life, in a new way. The hashtag facilitates categorization of thoughts by nature and also by related content," wrote Lauren Schuhmacher in a Huffington Post blog about hashtags. "Related thoughts can usually be communicated in one word when a hashtag is added. For a generation especially interested in brevity, that's a pretty cool way to talk."
And it's true that this generation very much expects instant gratification, has a short attention span, and is interested in rapid connections -- and therefore abbreviations, acronyms, and hashtags are great ways to fast track communications.
But is that really a good thing? We've already pretty much streamlined the communication process so we basically don't even talk to each other in real life anymore.
Using hashtags not only streamlines that process but further streamlines online communications and replaces more individualistic and well-thought out answers and narratives. This may lead to us being more concise but at what cost? When not on Twitter, we don't have a 140 character limit, and so using hashtags isn't necessary to better state what we want to say in a concise manner.
"The colloquial hashtag has burst out of its use as a sorting tool and become a linguistic tumor - a tic more irritating than any banal link or lazy image meme," wrote Sam Biddle in a Gizmodo article about how hashtags are ruining the English language.
And while I can see and appreciate the value in hashtags, and understand how many have taken to using them in real life in a mocking sort of manner, I still think they're better kept to online communications and their original function.
Because if I hear another college student say "hashtag: blessed" or "hashtag: first world problems," it'll be too soon. #Seriously.