#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 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.

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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