January 7, 2015

A thought on Octothorpe”

I’m slowly catching up on a backlog of podcast episodes I’d planned on listening to during the holidays, and one I particularly enjoyed was 99% Invisible’s episode on the Octothorpe. The podcast correctly pinpoints the moment in which the octothorpe (or pound sign, this fella right #) became a hashtag.

The hashtag, as we know it, was born one day in 2007. An early Twitter user named Chris Messina…

The episode goes on to describe why the octothorpe is a perfect subject heading, tracing it all the way back to its inclusion on touch tone phones (and how it got that weird name). What’s interesting is that I actually thought of the octothorpe as a subject line before it was considered a hashtag, and that’s because I do the majority of my writing (including this piece) in a syntax called Markdown.

In a sentence, Markdown is simply a way of writing formatted text without any complicated HTML or relying on app-specific formatting (If you want more than one sentence, Brett Terpstra explains it better). With Markdown, the writer puts an asterics on each side of a word to create italics, hyperlinks words with square and round brackets, and defines headers with an octothorpe. And people have been doing this since 2004.

From the Markdown Basics page:

To create an atx-style header, you put 1-6 hash marks (#) at the beginning of the line — the number of hashes equals the resulting HTML header level.

So essentially, one octothorpe (sorry, pound sign. Whatever, I just really love octothorpe as a name) next to a word becomes an H1, two is H2, and so on. It is, in HTML terms, a subject marker. As this is a point of view on a niche workflow, I completely understand Roman Mars not including it (that’s assuming he even considered it, or has heard of Markdown), and it took me a week after hearing the episode to put it together. Still, I think its usage in Markdown is another cool way the symbol has evolved over time.


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