Whether you first knew # as a number sign, the pound symbol, or a tic-tac-toe board, its incarnation as the hashtag has changed language for millions around the world. Sure, it can indicate where you’re posting from (#OvalOffice) or what you’re posting about (#FakeNews). But it has also shaped elections, launched social movements, and transcended its meaning as a mere keystroke to become a defining symbol of the digital age. Its story started on a bare-bones social-networking site called Twitter back in 2007, when early adopters began developing tools to organize their tweets.
Chris Messina: Ten years ago we were at South by Southwest in Austin when Twitter was really blowing up. But there were a lot of people back in San Francisco frustrated that their Twitter feeds were full of stories from Austin that were not relevant to them. There was no way of organizing tweets so you knew what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
Stowe Boyd: Chris suggested in a blog post that we start using tags in Twitter, and he proposed calling them channels. His orientation to that word came from his exposure to IRC chat rooms, right? Internet Relay Chat.
Messina: I’d been an active user on IRC for a while, and they had this concept of channels, which you named with the pound symbol and a word. So one day, in August 2007, I went to Twitter’s headquarters in South Park, in San Francisco. I didn’t really know anybody, but I walked up to Biz Stone and was like, “Hey, we’ve been talking about this problem with groups on Twitter. What do you think about using pound symbols to tag posts?”
Biz Stone: I don’t think he was proposing an actual system by which we would search or display the tags. He was just saying people should use tags. I said, “OK, but what do you want me to do about that? Go ahead and do it.”
Boyd: We started using them with our friends, but I never liked the name channels. My background was in computer science. The hash mark is one of the operators in C, and everybody I knew referred to it as the hash, right? Not pound. So the name came from programmer culture.
Messina: It took a few months to get going. I believe it was October before the hashtag had its first breakout success.
Nate Ritter: My wife and I were traveling around San Diego and saw smoke. We turned on the TV to try to get information about the fire so we could let other people know about it. The speed at which things were coming out was much too fast for me to blog about it, so I started posting about it on Twitter.
Messina: I reached out to him and proposed using a tag that was already being used on Flickr: #SanDiegoFire.
Ritter: I asked him, “Remind me again: What’s a hashtag?” And he pointed me to his blog post. So from that point forward, I started using the hashtag.
Messina: Because Nate was so prolific and was posting constantly for days, it gave people a taste of what it looks like to have hashtags.
Stone: Enough people started using them eventually that in 2009 Twitter decided to embrace them. Our developers built an automatic search tool so users could see who else was using that hashtag. When hashtags started moving to other platforms, I was like, “Whoa, this is crazy.”
Messina: When Instagram launched in 2010, the hashtag became the lingua franca for labeling content on both platforms.
Heather Gautney: In 2010 there was the Arab Spring and the European anti-austerity movement, which both used hashtags to brand what they were doing. In 2011 unions and anarchists and the group Adbusters, of course, very famously started organizing and used the Occupy Wall Street hashtag. It became very useful in terms of just-in-time information about protest activity.
Stone: It added another dimension to Twitter. You could be linked via hashtag to people you didn’t follow or who didn’t follow you. You could make new discoveries. The denser the network became, the better the network became.
Messina: The number one question I get is, “Oh, you worked for Twitter, right?” No, I never worked at Twitter. Yes, I contributed to it at some point. But the hashtag was not created for Twitter. The hashtag was created for the internet.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.