It’s officially been 10 years since we saw the first hashtag. Keep in mind this was long before iPhones, Android phones, or even a Twitter app. One Twitter user came up with the idea of using the “#” symbol to start grouping tweets together. That early Twitter user was Chris Messina. Not to be confused with the actor Chris Messina who starred in the Mindy Project. He said the idea originally stemmed from a couple of Internet throwbacks – IRC and T-9.
IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, is an old web standard that allowed messaging via group chat rooms. The format we now know as a hashtag, was already a well established part of IRC in 2007. This allowed users to group similar messages together using the # sign, so it only made sense to bring the same dynamic to Twitter.
Messina also notes that it was easier to type the # on old phones that used T-9. You remember what T-9 was right? An early form of predictive text when you still had to tap out messages using your phones keypad. It wasn’t an easy task. You had to hit “3”, three times, in order to get the “f” key. Yes, I used that example for a reason. Life was much harder back then.
What is interesting though is that Twitter’s founders came extremely close to ignoring the idea completely. I mean, I can’t really blame them. It was an old way of communicating. Why would you want to bring that to this new platform that we didn’t even really understand at that time? But Messina persisted and actually went to the Twitter office to pitch the idea to cofounder Biz Stone. Stone recounts this meeting, and posted the following in a blog post today:
“Because brevity is essential on Twitter, he suggested using the “pound” or “hash” character common on phones (this was pre-iPhone) to create groups of related Tweets”. Stone goes on to say “It was an undeniably elegant proposal, but I really needed to get back to work. I turned back to my computer screen to help get Twitter back up and running, hurriedly ending the conversation with a sarcastic ‘Sure, we’ll get right on that’.”
Messina was brave enough to brush off the brush off from Twitter and tweeted out his idea anyway. It took a while, but Twitter founders embraced the idea and actually started supporting it. In Stone’s defense, they were more concerned about how often Twitter was crashing. They needed to come up with a way to make sure that it didn’t continue to happen.
After a little while, they started to add hyperlinks to the tags, which has become one of Twitter’s most recognizable features. The hashtag has evolved since then. Today, Twitter users send more than 125 million hashtags a day. They are celebrating today’s milestone with a dedicated hashtag and custom emoji. 125 million hashtags is a lot for a given day, considering that Twitter almost didn’t support the idea. But now, it’s a trademark that everyone recognizes as originating with Twitter.