The man behind the hashtag, Chris Messina, talks with the Brunswick Review
Before #metoo or #blacklivesmatter, there was #barcamp. On August 23, 2007, less than two months after the first iPhone was released, Chris Messina, a designer and developer working in Silicon Valley, tweeted “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
Alongside the tweet (BarCamp referred to a technology conference Mr. Messina helped organize, one that has since been held in 350 cities around the world), he posted a blog about how the technology could work and created mockup designs of how it might look. The post ended humbly, acknowledging the idea wasn’t perfect, but that “the beginning steps look somewhat promising and workable.” Two days later, a fellow technologist offered a catchier name for Messina’s idea: hashtag.
In July 2009, roughly two years after he’d suggested the idea, Twitter took steps to allow the symbol to function as it does now, and as it does on every major social media platform: linking the symbol to the word and making it searchable.
Mr. Messina went on to work for some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names – Google, then Uber – and recently co-founded Molly, a technology service that “cleverly answers questions about you based on what you tell her and the social media you share with her.” His creation, the hashtag, has provided the prefix and rallying cry for social movements across the world – #IceBucketChallenge, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls – and has transformed the way we write, search for, and discover conversations online.
In a recent conversation, Mr. Messina told Brunswick how the hashtag was more of a “slow hunch” than a eureka moment, and inspired by practicality as much as politics. He also offered an alternative view for curmudgeons who grimace at hashtag finding its way into the Oxford English Dictionary and our daily conversations.
Where did the first hashtag come from?
In 2007, about a year after Twitter had started, the first South by Southwest Festival – the tech conference in Austin – was held and people were tweeting about it. People who didn’t go to SXSW were annoyed that their Twitter feeds were full of all of this garbage that they didn’t care about.
I knew that a lot of the behavior and activity on the web at the time was about group formation, so it seemed one solution would be to force everyone who wanted to talk about SXSW into a group.
The problem was no one was going to do that. You try to corral humans and they’ll resist on principle. We needed something that was easy, that was opt-in, that people would have some sort of economic incentive to use – and of course, that incentive typically is vanity. You want to be seen, right?
Blogging was the primary social activity then. You had Blogger, for publishing things that looked like articles, and Flickr, which was essentially a photo blog. If you could teach people to add labels to their content, just like you did on Flickr, where you’d add tags to your photos so that people could find them, then you could add tags to your content on Twitter.
There were two other important features at the time that don’t really exist in the same form today. One was called track, which allowed you to create a kind of Google alert for a word on Twitter. Any time that word was mentioned, you’d received a notification. The other was Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, sort of like chat rooms, and each chat room or channel was denoted by a pound symbol as a prefix, and then the name of the channel.
So the behaviors were relatively straightforward; I brought them together. It was pretty easy to explain how to use it. And more importantly, it was sort of an open-source behavior: When you saw someone doing it, you could emulate their behavior, or you’d figure it out pretty easily. And it was important that the hashtag would work anywhere you could write text, and people couldn’t remove your hashtags.
You say that its “open-source behavior” was important. Why?
It provides context to what we were trying to do at the time – and when I say “we,” I mean there was a community of technologists, people building social software, in San Francisco in particular. We had a bunch of libertarian ideas about how the internet should be built to enable speech, coordination, communication, and expression. I think people forget that some of the tools and technology which allow that today simply weren’t there when we started. A lot of what social media was, the role it could play, whether it would even be useful – that was being debated at the time. We didn’t think Twitter was going to succeed; people didn’t know what it was for. They just thought it was stupid navel gazing.
Did you save any of the most pointed comments or critiques to your idea?
Oh, yeah. People really hated it. They said, “Chris Messina uses way too much jargon in his tweets,” and, “What is this crap?” There were traditionalists who just thought it was an abuse of language.
All that was there. And I thought: that’s cool. What is it that you feel isn’t effective about this idea? What’s your alternative? How else can we solve this problem in a way that’s elegant, and accessible, and doesn’t require people to think too hard?