A smile crept across Chris Messina’s face this weekend when, at a festival, someone casually used the phrase “hashtag whatever”.
Go back ten years and we find the root of the product designer’s amusement; he was working for Google in Silicone Valley, California, and a new platform called Twitter just rejected his idea of using the hash symbol (#) as a way of grouping messages.
“It was the simplest, stupidest thing that could possibly work”, said Chris, which, with hindsight, he thinks could have been one of the reasons Twitter initially refused his idea.
To give some context, in 2007 the first iPhone had just been introduced on the market, most people were using phones with “plastic” numeric keyboards and Twitter was used by what the media perceived as “a bunch of navel gazers,” according to Chris.
Ten years ago, Chris made his initial suggestion in favour of the hashtag to other Twitter users.
He then made a more official pitch to Twitter at their offices, which was rebuffed.
“It was an undeniably elegant proposal, but I really needed to get back to work,” said Twitter co-founder Biz Stone of the encounter in a recent blog post.
“I turned back to my computer screen to help get Twitter back up and running, hurriedly ending the conversation with a sarcastic, Sure, we’ll get right on that.’”
Until this point, the hash, or pound symbol, had been used on phones to check answering machines and the idea of using it as a grouping tool was dismissed by Twitter’s busy founders as “for nerds” and something people would never understand, according to Nick Bilton author of Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal.
How did Chris convince Twitter to use the hashtag?
“I guess I took it upon myself to start talking to all the people that were using and developing apps for Twitter,” he said, “and actually convince them that there was something to this idea.”
“I was pretty persistent,” said Chris, who was using hashtags even though they didn’t link to any content at the time.
Twitter was eventually “forced” to embrace the hashtag, something Chris says he doesn’t hold against the founders, when apps that the platform acquired and integrated were already using the idea.
“In some ways, it was kind of a trojan horse thing,” he says.
In July 2011, Twitter publicly acknowledged the use of the hash sign on its platform to group messages and has since hyperlinked hashtags making them easier to use.
Why this symbol?
Chris says the reason for taking the # symbol is simple. When he first made his proposal most people were still using mobiles with numeric keypads, which gave him the choice of either the asterisk (*) or the hash/pound symbol.
The symbol was already being employed in chat rooms, so Chris wouldn’t have to convince those using it to change and it didn’t represent any other function in the tech industry at the time.
The at symbol (@) had started to become synonymous with usernames, so the hash symbol was a natural fit.
What is Chris’ favourite hashtag?
The man behind the hashtag has two favourites: #BlackLivesMatter and #FromWhereIStand.
#BlackLivesMatter is “a protest message and a statement in itself” and the perfect example of what a hashtag should invoke as it “demands participation either for or against,” said Chris.
The designer finds the #FromWhereIStand hashtag powerful as people use it to share what they are doing at an exact point in their lives, which he says is “validating”.
What is the future of the hashtag?
Ten years on from his initial proposal at Twitter’s offices Chris hopes that hashtags can act as a “weapon against disinformation and ignorance” in combatting things like fake news -a term that he defines as information that is “easy to spread and has no basis in reality”.
Chris Messina is currently working on a secret project that he will announce shortly
He also has a Facebook Bot on Messenger