Chris Messina, Twitter, Entrepreneurship

Chris Messina, Twitter

This Twitter user 'invented' the hashtag in 2007 — but the company thought it was 'too nerdy'

This Twitter user 'invented' the hashtag in 2007 — but the company thought it was 'too nerdy.' (via @CNBCMakeIt)

1/10/2020 10:19:00 AM

This Twitter user 'invented' the hashtag in 2007 — but the company thought it was 'too nerdy.' (via CNBCMakeIt)

In 2007, social media hashtag inventor Chris Messina was a Silicon Valley product designer who thought of a way to make Twitter easier to use. When the company turned down his initial request to work the hashtag into their platform, his friends and other users utilizing the symbol to post news of a San Diego wildfire helped it take off, grass roots style. 'The hashtag happened to be the simplest, dumbest thing that regular people would end up using,' Messina tells CNBC Make It.

Alas, Messina, now 38, did not monetize his idea, but it did change social media history.The problem with early TwitterIn 2007, Twitter was a year old and Chris Messina was a tech product designer running his own internet consulting company. Messina and his Silicon Valley friends were using Twitter, but found the endless, unorganized scroll of tweets made it next to impossible to isolate groups of messages around a certain topic.

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A screengrab of Twitter's homepage circa 2007.Source: Twitter/Web Design MuseumMessina thought if people used the same word or phrase and put the hash symbol in front of it that could "create an instant channel that anybody can join and participate in" in the conversation, Messina tells

.That was the "genesis of the idea," Messina says.He picked the pound sign as a nod to the chat platform Internet Relay Chat (IRC) that he and many of his friends in tech used to communicate at the time. IRC featured various channels, where users chatted about relevant topics (similar to newer platforms like Slack, Messina says) and the channel names were also preceded by a pound symbol. headtopics.com

Messina set out to see if he could get other Twitter users on board with his hashtag idea. In August 2007, he tweeted a question to his followers asking how they felt about using the pound symbol to make it easier to follow conversations about specific topics. More than a decade later, that somewhat prophetic tweet has more than 10,000 "likes" and nearly 5,000 retweets, but Messina tells CNBC the post mostly received "mixed reviews" at the time. (The tweet references BarCamp, a series of tech workshops that Messina helped create.)

"So, I started to kind of experiment and put down symbols in front of words and places that I was going to, you know, just kind of trying to get the ball off the ground," says Messina.It's too nerdyOf course, at that point, putting a hashtag in front of a word or phrase in a Twitter post did not automatically create a channel or link to anything. So Messina wrote a 2,000-word proposal for his hashtag idea — including mock ups of how he envisioned the hashtagged channels would look — and he took it to Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco.

"I walked in the front door, because they didn't have security, and I walked up to Biz Stone, one of the co-founders and, kind of, presented my idea," Messina tells CNBC Make It.Chris Messina, creator of the hashtag, in 2005.Source: Chris Messina/Flickr

Stone (who subsequently left and then returned to the company in an unspecified role in 2017) wrote in aMedium postthat Messina walked into Twitter's "grungy office" and pitched the hashtag idea to Stone and a few other Twitter employees while they "were working frantically to fix a tech issue that had brought Twitter down, as was often the case in those early days." headtopics.com

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Messina says that the preoccupied Stone "probably half-listened to my idea and then kind of dismissed it out of hand as being something that was too nerdy that would never catch on." Messina says Stone also promised that Twitter could simply write an algorithm to solve the problem of sorting topics of discussion.

Twitter offices at 164 South Park in San Francisco, California in March 2008.Courtesy of Biz StoneTwitter users make it happenAs it happened though, Messina's hashtag idea ended up taking off anyway.Messina kept promoting hashtags through his own social media accounts and in conversations with friends. Then that October, Messina convinced a friend named Nate Ritter to use hashtags in his tweets posting information about a San Diego wildfire, and pretty soon other Twitter users were following suit in order to keep track of tweets sharing news about the wildfire.

The event ended up being an "important test case" for Messina's idea, he says, and Wired even wrote an article about the phenomenon that helped create more awareness of how hashtags could be used on Twitter.From there, Messina convinced some third-party developers who were building apps for Twitter users to add support for hashtags to their apps.

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