#HappyBirthday: Quintessential Twitter Feature Turns 10

Aug 24, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 7:04 pm

The hashtag is 10! Yes, the symbol that started out as the lowly "number sign" or "pound" on the telephone keypad and later morphed into something entirely different is 10 years old today. And it has accomplished quite a lot. In fact, it's hard to imagine modern communication without it.

And you might think it was all by design. That the folks running Twitter needed a catchy little tool to help their new platform catch fire, and the hashtag is what they came up with.

But that's not the way it happened.

Twitter didn't even create the hashtag. The guy who did create it, Chris Messina, a former Google engineer, is adamant that he did not create it for Twitter. And Twitter wasn't sure it even needed a hashtag.

Here's how it happened: Ten years ago, Messina and his programmer friends were growing increasingly frustrated with the way communication worked on the Internet. As promising as Twitter seemed to be, it was a jumble. It lacked a way of organizing the many tweets that were coming in. Their solution: Start using tags.

Back in May, Wired magazine rounded up Messina and a few others who were present at the creation to relive the moment.

"Chris Messina: Ten years ago we were at South by Southwest in Austin when Twitter was really blowing up. But there were a lot of people back in San Francisco frustrated that their Twitter feeds were full of stories from Austin that were not relevant to them. There was no way of organizing tweets so you knew what to pay attention to and what to ignore."

Messina said he sought inspiration from Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, a service techies often used to facilitate online communities:

"I'd been an active user on IRC for a while, and they had this concept of channels, which you named with the pound symbol and a word. So one day, in August 2007, I went to Twitter's headquarters in South Park, in San Francisco. I didn't really know anybody, but I walked up to Biz Stone and was like, 'Hey, we've been talking about this problem with groups on Twitter. What do you think about using pound symbols to tag posts?'

"Biz Stone (Twitter Co-founder): I don't think he was proposing an actual system by which we would search or display the tags. He was just saying people should use tags. I said, 'OK, but what do you want me to do about that? Go ahead and do it.' "

And that's what they did. A few months later hashtags would start to catch fire because people wanted to find out more about, well, a fire.

This account is from Wednesday's Irish Times:

"October of that year (2007) the first big hashtag campaign took off. Nate Ridder was trying to collate reporting about fires that had broken out in southern California into manageable streams. He did so with the hashtag #sandiegofire, and over dozens of posts his reader base came to know and understand the meaning and utility of that odd, little slanted grid."

Two years later, hashtags had become so popular that Twitter arranged a formal adoption, and the rest, shall we say, is hashtag history.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.