When Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (@jack) sent the first Tweet on March 21, 2006 by posting “just setting up my twttr” Dorsey and his colleagues were simply looking for a way to send text messages on their cell phones.
just setting up my twttr
— Jack Dorsey (@jack) March 21, 2006
There was no need for any sort of organization or classification system for posts on the newly launched social networking site, and in fact, that’s how Twitter was designed.
According to Dorsey, “…we came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information, and that’s exactly what the product was.” The organic, community-driven instantaneous sharing of brief messages and thoughts was how the founding fathers envisioned this microblogging site; a sort of online SMS text messaging system.
Fast forward to 2011, where the almost 200 million worldwide users send over 140 million tweets daily, and the need for some sort of tool to bring order to all of this information is clear. (340 million Tweets a day in March, 2012.)
Thanks to a Tweet by Chris Messina (@chrismessina), a Twitter user from the early years, the hashtag was successfully pitched to the online community as a way to organize messages into meaningful groups. Hashtags have since been embraced by users worldwide as a way to classify the often-frantic exchange of thoughts and information on the social networking site.
On August 23, 2007 at 12:25pm, Messina Tweeted “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in
— Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
Two days after this game-changing Tweet, Messina wrote two posts on his blog, Factoryjoe.com expanding on his idea to create a “whisper circle” to exchange these little messages. (In 2007, Tweets were commonly referred to as “whispers”.)
In his first post on August 25, 2007 at 2pm, titled “Whispering Tweets,” Messina proposes setting up an “inner circle” on Twitter as a place to receive “whispers”, giving users the ability to partially restrict posts to a “small, and more intentional, audience”. He suggests that posts directed to members of a user’s inner circle be prefaced with a simple syntax, an exclamation point (!).
Messina was a pretty busy guy on August 25 that year, posting again on his blog at 10pm. This second article, titled “Groups for Twitter; or a Proposal for Twitter Tag Channels,” elaborates on the idea of improving content filtering on Twitter by using channel tags.
In his second blog of the day, Messina details the specifics of using a hash character (#) as a prefix within Twitter posts to enhance the user experience. He suggests that by using a channel tag within a status update, other Twitter users will garner specific information about that post as well as have the ability to “eavesdrop” on the channel, participating at will.
It’s interesting to note the level of dialogue between early Tweeters that occurred during the development of the hashtag prefix. On Messina’s site alone, there are comments from over a dozen industry experts who all actively discuss how tag channels on Twitter should evolve.
Messina wasn’t some random Twitter user who stumbled upon hashtags by accident. In 2007, he and then-girlfriend Tara Hunt founded a consulting company called Citizen Agency, focused on using social media in relation to open source practices and values. A year earlier, in 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle identified Messina and Hunt as a couple of the “Digital Utopians” of the Web 2.0.
Following this early conversation on the development of hashtags within Twitter, Cody Marx Bailey and Aaron Farnham launched a new website called Hashtags.org in December 2007. This popular site is now the undisputed authority on Twitter hashtag tracking, claiming to be “the defacto standard for hashtag information”. Bailey and Farnham parted ways later, and the Hashtags.org domain name was, in early 2011, sold to current owner and new media entrepreneur Michael Cyger.
Today, the use of hashtags on Twitter continues to be an evolving practice, growing in much the same way it began. Users of this social media site continue to explore the different applications of hashtags, and collectively control the future of channel tagging on Twitter.
The history of hashtags is an ongoing story about the ways in which product users can influence the application and use of a product with the strength of a collective voice. Popular hashtags enjoy devote followers, while Tweeters who are unpopular or use hashtags as a form of spam are quickly tossed from the virtual nest.