Twitter initially laughed off the hashtag and now it’s a truly global internet phenomenon

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Just over 11 years ago a small word entered our global internet lexicon and is now a part of our cultural firmament: the hashtag.

It was first used on August 23 2007 by Chris Messina, who – appropriately – tweeted: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Amazingly, Messina was told by Twitter – when he suggested it to them at the time – that the idea was for “nerds”.

As he told Wall Street Journal, Twitter “told me flat out, ‘These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on.'”

So, like all global movements he started the idea small and it went viral all on its own. When wildfires broke out in San Diego in October 2007, he asked a friend who was tweeting about it to add #sandiegofire and it took off…. like wildfire.

“The fact that other people actually emulated him in real time during those fires gave me a sense that this could actually work,” Messina told CNBC earlier this year. “It turned out that lots of people wanted to have their voices heard and participate in a global conversation.”

Now some 125m hashtags are used on Twitter every day, the company says, and officially became part of the English language in 2014 when it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s used by Facebook, Instagram and almost every other social network.

“It’s thrilling to see how this little idea that came out of a very specific moment in the evolution of the Internet took off and has grown into something far bigger than me, bigger than Twitter or Instagram, and that will hopefully maintain its relevance for a long time to come,” Messina, who is user number 1,186 on Twitter, told The Australian.

The idea of hashtags is often cited as an example of how innovation happens at the edges. It wasn’t Twitter that made it popular, but its users, and Twitter started using it for its searches in 2009 and then its “Trending Topics” on the Twitter home page in 2010.

Apart from being used in everyday conversation now – #JustSaying – it has given rise to what is often called hashtag activism. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have taken the world by storm having found a voice through Twitter.

In South Africa it helped give voice to #FeesMustFall, #PayBackDaMoney, #DataMustFall and #ZuptasMustFall amongst others.

It gave rise to great online humour through funny alternatives like #FourWordMovies, #MomTexts, #1LetterWrongMovie (Jurassic Pork is notable), #GeekPickUpLines and the ever-popular #covefe.

As Messina said: “I didn’t create this idea for Twitter. I created this idea for the Internet and I wanted anybody who could write text on the Internet to be able to participate in global conversations.”

That was why he never patented it, he said on Quora: “claiming a government-granted monopoly on the use of hashtags would have likely inhibited their adoption, which was the antithesis of what I was hoping for”.

In the spirit that seems to underpin the internet, his second reason was: “I had no interest in making money (directly) off hashtags. They are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one.”

As he wrote on the 10th anniversary: ” the success of the hashtag represents a different model for contributing to the world. Not everything worthy of pursuit must be driven by economic or capitalistic outcomes.”

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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