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Carnegie Mellon grad's tweak to tweets turns 7

| Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
Kat Borlongan
Chris Messina, a 2003 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, is largely crediting with bringing the hashtag to social media.

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 megha@tribweb.com.

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