What does it take to change the world? Do you have to be president of a powerful countries? Or a high-powered lawyer fighting injustice? Or can it be as simple as changing the way people communicate with one another?
For Chris Messina, the creator of Twitter’s most ubiquitous feature—the hashtag—he never set out to change the world.
But in changing how we organize information in the early days of social media, Messina firmly placed himself in the history of the changing nature of communication. So much so that the Oxford English Dictionary added ‘hashtag’ to its hallowed pages in 2014.
But to understand the origins of the hashtag, we need to understand the context of the world where it was first needed. And to do that, we need to go back. Way back. To 2004, right after the dot-com burst ushered in a so-called ‘Nuclear Winter’ in San Francisco.
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The party was over for the execs and founders banking on the ‘new economy’ the widespread use of computers had ushered in. But when the dust finally settled, it was the ‘nerds’—the coders, engineers, and programmers—who were there to pick up the pieces.
This was a decisive moment in the history of the internet as several companies were fighting to control how we accessed and experienced the web. As Messina remembers it:
“It was like Adobe vs. Microsoft in who was going to screw up the web the most.”
So, a then 23-year-old Messina arrives in the Bay Area and quickly joins up with the tribe of open-source activists and web pioneers working on Mozilla’s Firefox—a browser designed to keep the web open and free.
One of his first major tasks would be helping to announce Firefox to the world, which they did through a two-page ad in the New York Times depicting the Firefox logo made out of the names of the ten thousand volunteers who had worked with Mozilla.
“I think that the reaction and the response that came after that gave us some sense for what we were onto. We’d cleared the deck of all these dot-com companies who had aspirationally said they were going to take over the world and really had no plans or thoughts of how they were going to do it and got back to something that was much more brass tacks and solid and concrete.
“You could download it, you could install it and feel it. And it was a slower sort of process to spreading the internet culture to the mass culture.”
The experience of working with Mozilla taught Messina the power of communication, not just on a mass scale like their ad in The New York Times, but internally as well. The whole time they were working on these projects, Messina and his Mozilla kin were chatting over IRC, an early group chat platform.
Chat comes to the masses
The experience also taught them about working outside of the ‘standard’ channels—of finding their own ways to communicate and to continue to keep the web a place that was open and malleable.
A few years, they’d find a new platform to work on when in 2006 Twitter started to become more and more popular with people in Messina’s circle. But he didn’t bite at first:
“There’s this funny sort of thing for me where I have this weird skepticism where when I see things early on I’m like ‘oh, whatever that’s just a fad’, and then I come back 6 months later and I’m all in. When I first saw Twitter, their homepage had these weird 3D renderings on it and this green melty logo.”
“To me, it didn’t seem like it was looking forward enough. It wasn’t thinking about the move and the migration off of the desktop to the mobile phone.”
“Eventually I came around to it. I’m in the first 2000 users of Twitter. I think once I finally started to use it, I started to realize that this was a lightweight form of blogging essentially and I could keep my friends up-to-date.
“It was sort of security-through-obscurity as well because there just weren’t that many people on it, so you could sort of broadcast anything you were doing that was banal and stupid but the people that were following you were probably your close friends and so it actually made sense.”
Now, Twitter in the early days was a different beast. This is pre-smartphone era, so most tweets were sent via SMS and most people used SMTP, Google Chat, or IRC to retrieve their messages. So when someone posted directly to you, you’d receive it in a Google Chat or an IRC channel.
It also had these commands that were very command line-esque, as in you would type “F (someone’s username)” to follow someone. Or, “D (username)” to direct message. And then there was this feature called ‘track’.
“And so you could track keywords. So, if every tweet that mentioned Firefox was something you were interested in, you could do ‘Track Firefox’ and you’d get all the updates and all the tweets delivered to you into, let’s say Google Chat. And so you’d have this running list of things going on during the day and that’s how you followed stuff.”
Sounds pretty familiar, right?
But just like bringing Firefox to the masses, Messina saw the issue of breaking Twitter out of its tech-savvy user base and opening it up to the general public. Nothing made this more evident than during the 2007 South-by-Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Messina decided to stay home in San Francisco while his friends headed down south to the annual music and film festival. Over the past year, Twitter had been slowly gathering steam and Messina’s friends were all actively tweeting during the event.
“But, the problem is, all these other people who are off in Austin, are tweeting about their experience as if all of their friends are there with them. So they’ll be making jokes about the keynote without any context because they assume their audience is there with them at the venue.”
And so the conversation started brewing within the community about how to filter this content?
How do we see the things that are relevant to us and not see the things that aren’t relevant.
One idea was ‘groups’, a feature that Flickr had recently implemented that allowed you to join or leave groups as you pleased:
“To me, it didn’t seem like it was looking forward enough. It wasn’t thinking about the move and the migration off of the desktop to the mobile phone. And at the time I was using this old Nokia feature phone and I just couldn’t imagine the idea of going into a group from this feature phone that didn’t really have a web browser and trying to update my status about the event. And even worse, if I started drinking, which is basically what you do at SXSW, it completely would not work. It would be a complete disaster.
“So, it occurred to me that what we needed to do was just embed the group information into the Tweet itself so I didn’t have to go anywhere but I could just say ‘hey, this is a tag about this content and it should get routed accordingly.’ And frankly, this could be about multiple things. So maybe it’s about SXSW so I’ll do #SXSW, but it’s also about Firefox, so I’ll do #Firefox. And then those two things basically become terms that label this content.”
In typical meta fashion, Messina proposed the hashtag on Twitter on August 25th, 2007. He drew up a few mock-ups of what it might look like in practice and put it out to the world. And what happened next is what was just so amazing about San Francisco at that time.
“I think it was the very next day because I have a photo from going to Twitter’s offices in South Park. I essentially walked right in the front doors—it was a small office, maybe there was like 20-30-40 people working there at the time—and I was like ‘Biz, I wrote this proposal about how groups can work on Twitter yesterday’. And he was like, ‘That’s just too nerdy. No one’s ever going to do that. It’s great for nerds and that’s fine and it’s like IRC, but it’s just not going to happen.’
“I guess at the time I was convinced that more complex, more technologically sophisticated ideas were better. That this was a stupid idea because it’s so simple.”
“I was probably a little bit bummed about that but I thought that maybe that’s right. I mean, he was a part of a company that was sold to Google. I wasn’t totally convinced that this was a great idea for humanity necessarily. I guess at the time I was convinced that more complex, more technologically sophisticated ideas were better. That this was a stupid idea because it’s so simple. It’s so basic. And yet, it turns out that changing a billion people’s behaviour is actually really hard.”
But he didn’t walk away at that point. Channeling his experiences at Mozilla where they worked outside of the major internet companies of the day to make real change, Messina started spreading the word.
At this point, Twitter’s going full-steam ahead and there are all these indie developers out their building on top of the Twitter API:
“There was a 3rd party search engine called Summize, which was built to search Twitter because Twitter didn’t have its own search capability. And they had support for hashtags. And so in their implementation which is basically the way it works today, you could see a hashtag in a tweet and it would be blue underlined and you could click on it and it would execute a search. Very straightforward. Very obvious. And we take this pattern for granted but they were the first to do it through the web.
“And then I worked with the developer of Tweetie, which then became the Mac client, and he added support for hashtags. And then Echofon was another one. And so forth. So slowly, these apps started to have support for a lot of these extensions.”
And just as the hashtag starts to reach critical mass in the 3rd party landscape, Twitter goes on a shopping spree, buying up all of these developers and officially folding them into Twitter itself—hashtags and all.
“If you draw the line from the very beginning, with Firefox my hope was that more and more people would become users of the web. And it wasn’t just my hope. It was a lot of people’s hope.
“And then, to the era of social media, it was, ‘can more and more people become publishers and become participants in the web? In creating content for the web and experiencing that process’.”
From #YOLO to #JeSuisParis, a simple way to organize content has become a way for us to organize the world, grouping together the biggest ideas and events so that we can see what’s happening in real time.
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