How A Famous Hashtag Is Born

Instagram’s #ThrowBackThursday all started with some Hotwheels cars.

In the beginning it was just a photo or two, but in the past few weeks almost my entire Thursday Instagram feed has been inundated with “throwbacks” — a baby picture or an old family photo, or for others, something that happened maybe only a few months (or minutes?) before. The sheer volume and range of photos tagged with #throwbackthursday (or #tbt) was perplexing — enough to make me dig deeper into this variety of the “vague, manufactured nostalgia” that Instagram is known for.

On any given Thursday, the tags are on as many as 30 million new photos. Webstagram’s top filters listed #tbt at number eight with over 26 million photos and #throwbackthursday at number fifty-one with nearly 8 million. That means that in one day, there are five times as many photos tagged #tbt as there were total photos uploaded in 2011, according to Instagram.

What makes #throwbackthursday different than the other popular hashtags on Instagram is that most don’t have a particular occasion — #cute, #love, #sky, #beautiful and the various #instagood, #instamood, or #instadaily. But somewhere along the way Instagrammers decided throwbacks are saved for Thursdays, not #memorymondays, and it’s the one time Instagrammers might actually think, wait and save instead of putting something up right away.

But even the founder of #throwbackthursday is, himself, surprised at its popularity. Bobby Sanders or bobbysanders22, is credited with launching the first such tag about a year and a half ago. The photo he attached it to was a picture of cars — Hotwheels cars, that is — with a faded filter and old border.

“I don’t even remember that picture — it must have been something on my phone and I didn’t have anything better else to post that day,” Sanders told me. “That’s pretty crazy.”

Sanders still participates in #TBT occasionally, though he says much of the novelty has worn off. “Not to sound like a hipster and say ‘it’s so mainstream now’ but I liked it before,” he told me. “It was something that was different, and I liked the filters — today it’s kind of annoying.”

In the beginning #throwbackthurs seemed to be used only a small subset of the most nostalgia-obsessed ‘grammers, but I watched as it spread everywhere, including among athletes, celebrities, and (see below) cartoon characters. Which makes sense. It appeals to the reason why people like Instagram in the first place: the idea of using filters and fade to go back in time — even if the memories are only minutes old. Putting actual old photos through the filters is just a way to make Instagram even more….Instagrammatical.

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