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

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users to punctuate their tweets with hash mark tic-tac-toes when Twitter itself would not link hashtagged words to search results. “It really didn’t do anything,” Messina recalled. “It wasn’t a handle. It didn’t make it any easier to search.”

As Messina told the BBC in a recent interview, “There was a lot of skepticism in the beginning.”

Nevertheless, he used the hashtag in his own tweets, and encouraged his friends to do the same. He first tweeted the idea during lunchtime on Aug. 23, 2007, writing, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” (Messina, as some people might guess, is also a zealous proponent of BarCamp, the ad hoc, user-generated “unconferences” that focus primarily on technology and the Web.)

Messina concedes that he and his friends might still be the only ones using the hashtag if it were not for a couple serendipitous events—beginning with a cataclysmic series of firestorms that erupted throughout San Diego County on Oct. 20, 2007.

One of his friends, San Diego Web developer Nate Ritter, started posting information about the out-of-control wildfires on his blog and Twitter. Ritter told me he began monitoring news media sources for information about the fire, including KPBS, the NPR affiliate in San Diego that eventually connected to key data sources through the Immersive Visualization Center at San Diego State University.

For Ritter, rapidly posting information about road closures and neighborhood evacuations became an exercise in citizen journalism. He said he was soon sending his news updates exclusively on Twitter every two-to-three minutes.

After about 20 tweets, Ritter said Messina got in touch, and urged him to start using the hashtag #sandiegofire. Other Twitter users began copying #sandiegofire into their own tweets, including San Diego news media organizations that realized Twitter was a handy way to distribute headline news.

Jerry Sheehan, who was then chief of staff at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), wrote in an email, “The use of the # in the public safety event allowed the media to essentially turn citizens into news gatherers.  If you remember the ’07 fires, there was a fair amount of crowdsourced content that was facilitated by Twitter.  This crowdsouring impulse for data gathering would lead to lots of great tools, including the development in Africa of the open source tool Usahidi.”

After San Diego’s 2007 wildfires, the hashtag gradually became used more frequently—as Messina put it, “as a way to get people to add a little more information about what they’re posting.”

Over time, the hashtag has become an Internet and social media phenomenon. It was adopted by Twitter users who tweeted in both English and Persian during protests that erupted in Iran in mid-2009 over the disputed election victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That same year, Twitter finally began to hyperlink all hashtagged keywords to Twitter search results.

Messina says that hashtag use really took off, though, with the 2010 launch of Instagram, because users of the photo-based social media technology needed a shorthand method to label their images.

Today the hashtag symbol has infiltrated all sorts of conversations, from topical news about #Cuba and #SonyHack to cocktail party conversations, wedding convocations, and other gatherings large and small. Its use has become so widespread that the venerable Oxford English Dictionary even added a hashtag entry in June:

hashtag n. (on social media web sites and applications) a word or phrase preceded by a hash and used to identify messages relating to a specific topic; (also) the hash symbol itself, when used in this way.

Hashtags originated on, and are chiefly associated with, the social networking service Twitter.

If hashtag has become a household word, it’s safe to say that Chris Messina helped make it happen.

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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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