Carnegie Mellon grad's tweak to tweets turns 7
Whether you love it or hate it, the hashtag, the little “#” symbol that has become synonymous with social media, is 7 years old, and a Carnegie Mellon University graduate is the person you have to thank — or blame.
His name is Chris Messina, he graduated in 2003, and he was an early user of Twitter, the service that allows people to share thoughts or information in 140 characters or fewer.
Messina, a design graduate, said that in the early days of Twitter, he and his friends looked for a way to filter and search everything in what was then a much smaller Twitterverse.
Enter the pound symbol, already used in an early group messaging system called Internet Relay Chat. It helped group topics or forums, Messina said, and it seemed like it could work for Twitter.
“It's a way of adding a little extra information to the content of your tweets,” he said.
So, he started using it, and wrote a blog post outlining some user guidelines and why he thought it would work. He even put out a tweet requesting its use in 2007.
It sputtered about until a friend in San Diego started reporting on a series of large wildfires in October 2007. Messina said he suggested that the friend tag everything with #sandiegofire to help people find information about the rapidly spreading blazes that eventually devoured hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of people.
The fire and other news stories lent credence to Twitter as a way to spread information. And the hashtag spread all over Twitter, then to Instagram, Facebook and into everyday speech.
“It's useful. It's also a signal of being part of the Twitter community, a signal that you know the culture of the group,” said Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on what makes things go viral.
Messina — who worked for Google and various start-ups and now consults — said he was stunned but pleased with the hashtag's success.
When he moved to San Francisco, he said, it was during an open-source era in which people believed technology, including what would become social media, could level the playing field between the haves and have-nots. As an early publishing platform, services such as Twitter were free and open to everyone.
“The hashtag itself ... is an example of the democratization of technology,” he said. “There's no network that owns the hashtag.”
He could have patented the hashtag as a grouping device, but didn't. It's unclear whether Twitter tried. Representatives did not respond to interview requests.
In some ways, the hashtag is changing. It's still used to group thoughts, as with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Social media users can search #ferguson for news and thoughts about the shooting and subsequent civil unrest. But hashtags also imply bigger-picture thoughts.
After the Brown shooting, young black men and women tweeted pictures of themselves in serious and casual settings with the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown to protest the media's consistent use of a photo implying Brown was a thug, instead of pictures showing him as all the other things he was: a high school graduate, a would-be college student, a son, a friend.
“It's almost like a subtle signal that you're speaking to a set of people. The hashtag is democratizing,” said Berger, but “it divides people into subgroups.”
Whether as a search tool, a way to be clever or a way to say a lot in a few characters, the hashtag got the ultimate nod during the summer. In June, “hashtag” was added to the Oxford Dictionary. #lookitup
Megha Satyanarayana is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.
Add Megha Satyanarayana to your Google+ circles.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Mt. Lebanon High School to sell its planetarium equipment
- CMU software eases task of mining prostitution ads
- Gulls fleeing frozen Great Lakes fill skies over Pittsburgh’s Point
- W.Va. natural gas line explodes near Ohio border
- Mt. Lebanon awaits Pennsylvania Game Commission approval to corral, kill deer
- NTSB: Better oversight needed to prevent natural gas pipeline accidents
- ‘Sugar Daddy’ solution gains ground among female college students
- Pa. Turnpike claims software fraud, wants $45M
- Beloved North Side gardener gets new truck, paid for by her neighbors
- Alcosan to hold public meetings on plans to reduce sewage flow into rivers during storms
- Federal grand jury indicts man for violating poultry law while operating illegal slaughterhouse in his Jefferson Hills home