#Hashtag This: How the Twitter Hashtag Caught Fire in San Diego

It’s been over seven years since Chris Messina proposed that Twitter users adopt the hash symbol as a way to collate their discussions and designate groups.

I’m only just now catching up to him, although I have an excuse. I used to be mainstream media.

Still, as Messina told me recently by phone from San Francisco, “It’s taken quite the while for this to get into mainstream—all through word of mouth, and a kind of grassroots movement.”

The hashtag is Messina’s claim to fame as a keypad-carrying member of the Twitterati. But he also said there was a San Diego angle at the beginning of the hashtag saga that is not widely known—a kind of tipping point that helped make the hashtag spread like wildfire.

Messina was not a Twitter insider when he came up with the idea in 2007. Rather, he’s an early adopter of innovations in social media—he says he was Twitter user No. 1,186—and an ardent advocate of what he calls “the open source ethos.”

Chris Messina

Chris Messina

As a graduate in communications design from Carnegie Mellon University, the stuff Messina finds most exciting lies at the confluence of technology, design, and human experience. “The biggest thing is being able to introduce products that bring together design and technology to a broader audience, at a lower cost and faster to scale, and in a short amount of time,” he says. “I’m generally interested in how people get together, and how they organize themselves.”

Using the hash symbol made so much sense, Messina said, because it had been used extensively during the heyday of Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, where the # symbol was used to designate different discussion forums, known as channels, and in private, one-to-one communications among IRC users. Finnish programmer Jarkko Oikarinen developed the network chat protocol in 1988, and it gained extensive use through the 1990s.

Messina believed so strongly in the idea that he says he walked into Twitter headquarters one day to personally pitch his idea to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.
About the hashtag, Messina was an irresistible force. But Stone, alas, was an immovable object. “He flat out said ‘No.’ But thanks for your enthusiasm,” Messina recalled.

At that time, Twitter was just over one year old. So Messina became a kind of unauthorized Twitter evangelist, encouraging other … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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