On Twitter , the #hashtag is king. It's the key method followers and brands use to organize around interests, news, memes, and even e-commerce sales.
But in recent weeks, many have started to question whether Twitter  truly owns the hashtag . While once synonymous with the microblogging platform, hashtags are now used on social networks ranging from Tumblr to Google+ to Yammer even. Demonstrating this trend, despite the fact that half of all Super Bowl ads featured hashtags, Twitter was mentioned in only 6% of the commercials, according to one analysis . It's a growing concern for Twitter, which counts the hashtag as a crucial avenue for connecting brands with consumers, especially as it tries to build up its advertising revenue for a widely anticipated IPO in the coming years. But with rival social network Instagram, the photo-sharing platform acquired by Facebook for $1 billion, attracting big-name brands such as Doritos to build campaigns around Instagram hashtags, some wonder whether Twitter may have let the hashtag slip away from its once firm grasp.
It's important to note that Twitter didn't invent the hashtag--that honor goes to an outside developer --but Twitter and its users certainly took the concept mainstream. Just as we are familiar with seeing Foursquare's logo next to a check-in call-to-action at any number of retailers, the public has long been conditioned to associate hashtags with Twitter, whether on TV or in person. But more and more have hashtags become associated with other networks, especially Instagram. Only recently I passed by an ad in the streets of New York from Ben & Jerry's that featured an @username and urged fans to use the hashtag #CaptureEuphoria. The problem? The campaign was entirely built around Instagram--not Twitter.
Executives from American Express echoed a similar sentiment about hashtags several weeks ago. The company had just partnered with Twitter to enable purchases  through hashtags on the service. Yet when I asked Leslie Berland, SVP of digital partnerships at AmEx, whether Twitter owned the hashtag, she demurred. "We believe it's agnostic," said Berland, stressing that AmEx works with any number of social networks, including Facebook. "The hashtag is becoming much more ubiquitous, and it opens up more opportunity for us based on what our technology can do with the hashtag."
Added David Wolf, VP of global product and biz-dev at AmEx, "We want to make [it] as ubiquitous as possible."
Joel Lunenfeld, VP of global brand strategy at Twitter, agrees that the hashtag is a growing part of culture, which isn't necessarily married to Twitter. "It's definitely something that is out in the public forum--brands and consumers are co-owning it," he says. "They've owned the original use of the hashtag, which was done by users on the platform. Like much of Twitter, it's shared, communal experience."
Still, Lunenfeld adds, "If you take a look at the Super Bowl, you'll notice that 50% of commercials had hashtags in them, which really signaled that brands wanted the conversation to continue."
Continue where, though? When I pointed out that not all of those commercials mentioned Twitter, Lunenfeld was steadfast. "I think there's evidence that hashtags are regarded as very unique to Twitter," he says. "The fact [is] that advertisers have, especially around the Super Bowl, done all of their follow-up campaigns they launched using hashtags [on Twitter]. [There] were discussions during the [Super Bowl] blackout from brands like Oreo and Calvin Klein--that was all done on Twitter. The preparation that goes into all this is pretty powerful. All of their teams and their warerooms are doing this for Twitter."
In an excellent analysis following the Super Bowl, Danny Sullivan essentially came to the same conclusion as Lunenfeld . "Every brand that pushed a hashtag in its Super Bowl ad did have a Twitter account. In contrast, a significant number of brands did not have an Instagram or Google+ account," he wrote. "I think it’s pretty obvious those hashtags can be firmly counted as a reference to Twitter…Twitter is a place for conversation, [and] hashtags with ads seem to be about building buzz, building word-of-mouth, and Instagram isn’t word of mouth. Picture of mouth, maybe."
Lunenfeld is aware hashtags can be used on other social networks. But he believes the reason is inevitably to foster a dialogue on Twitter between brands and consumers. Or as he says, "The punchline in all of the setup actually takes place on Twitter."
[Conversation Illustration: Verticalarray  via Shutterstock]