This is a guest post by Jonathon Youshaei. A tech entrepreneur and journalist, Youshaei has worked at Google and YouTube. He also contributes to The Huffington Post.
“What the heck is this pound sign doing here?”
It’s hard to believe that’s how Twitter users reacted to hashtags in 2007. Today, hashtags are the cornerstones of the newly public company, helping users track trends and contribute to conversations across the Twitterverse. In fact, hashtags are so popular that new parents have even named babies after them (you have a special place in my heart, Hashtag Jameson). Without question, the great irony of today’s IPO is that it may have never happened without a man who didn’t even work for Twitter.
So how did it become such a worldwide phenomenon?
To find the answer, I spoke with Chris Messina, who tweeted the first-ever hashtag:
A co-founder of BarCamp, an annual workshop for hackers, Messina suggested using the hashtag as a simple way to guide conversation among attendees. He chose the pound sign purely out of convenience: it required the fewest keystrokes on his Nokia phone. The symbol made it easy for anyone to signal keywords and create an ongoing dialogue.Given how many Twitter users were aching for a group-messaging feature, Messina’s ad-hoc solution should have been seen as a godsend. Instead, it was met with mockery.
“A lot of people were pretty negative,” he recalls.“They would say, ‘this is stupid. Why are you adding all of this extra junk in your tweets? Twitter is ugly already and you’re not helping the problem.’”
Even Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone didn’t like the idea. While visiting friends at Twitter’s offices, Messina ran into Williams and Stone and mentioned the concept.
“They told me, ‘Hashtags are for nerds. That stuff is never going to catch on,” Messina recalls six years later. “’We’re going to build algorithms, we’re going to figure it out, and you won’t have to use hashtags at all. We got it covered.’”
But Messina had chutzpah. He decided to lead a grassroots movement, writing detailed blog postsabout the hashtag’s benefits, drawing mockups of “hashtag channels” and using hashtags everywhere. In fact, co-workers soon noticed Messina using hashtags everywhere.
“It began with Twitter but eventually, I started to use hashtags in my texts, emails, and even my Google Doc titles,” he says. “It made it easier to search all of my own content.”
It took a few months for others to see the value. Oddly enough, a natural disaster helped Messina’s movement spread like wildfire – literally.
On October 22, 2007, San Diego resident Nate Ritter turned to Twitter to break the news about a historic forest fire:
He became a one-man news crew. The television and radio blasted in Ritter’s living room as he sat on his sofa, listening intently and funneling updates through Twitter. He even roamed the streets, asking for first-hand reports and tweeting about evacuation sites, meeting points and places to gather supplies. But with only 350 followers, Ritter updates weren’t getting very far.
That’s where Messina re-enters our story. Turns out he and Ritter were buddies from BarCamp. Messina saw his tweets and sent him a direct message at 4:02 PM: “ever heard of hashtags? You could use #sandiegofires in your tweets.”
A few hours later, Ritter tweeted:
Soon enough, many other users started tweeting “#sandiegofire” and tracking it for crucial updates (“tracking” was a short lived featured that served a purpose similar to the hashtag). The hashtag had finally proved its usefulness in a moment of dire need and across a large audience.
“You can just see the difference from that point forward,” Messina says. “Before, there was no way of going to a topical source of information about that event. In other words, if you were in San Diego and wanted to find out what was going on, you had to go to 14 different websites, check the radio, and so forth.”
Riding the momentum from the fire, hashtags gradually gained traction as third-party applications, such as Summize, adopted it. Once Twitter started acquiring these apps, it had little choice but to follow suit. In 2009, Twitter formally embraced Messina’s brainchild by adding hyperlinks to all hashtags, integrating them into search and introducing “Trending Topics,” which places popular hashtags on users’ homepages.
“If they had gone and added a complicated web-based groups feature, I feel like Twitter may not have made it,” he says. “But you have to give them a lot of credit for ultimately keeping things as simple as possible.”
The only thing more astonishing than Twitter’s reluctance to accept its soon-to-be centerpiece was Messina’s dedication to bring it to life. Think about it: Messina invested hours into writing blog posts, drawing mockups, and messaging others to evangelize the hashtag – and Twitter never paid him a dime nor gave him a single share.
Twitter provided the platform and Ritter gave him an opportunity, but it was Messina who never stopped believing. It’s only years later that the world finally understands his vision. Ultimately, his creation helped young Egyptians mobilize in TahrirSquare,empowered Americans to interact with President Obama, and enabled Twitter to generate revenue from hashtag advertising campaigns leading to today’s IPO.
All the while, Messina never asked for anything in return. For all he’s done, I say we thank him in the only way we can. If you’re as inspired by his story as I am, tweet with the hashtag #ThankYouMessina and let’s see if we can get it trending.