“A Trojan horse thing”: Meet the user experience guru who forced Twitter to introduce the #hashtag


When Chris Messina took his idea for something called a ‘hashtag’ to Twitter, they rejected it out of hand.

“They thought it was too complex and users would never use them,” Messina explains.

That was more than a decade ago and, as we all know, hashtags are now so much a part of our lives they’re on almost every billboard and at every event. There’s even a bar in Puerto Rico called #selfie. (If you’re in that neck of the woods and fancy a #mojito, apparently they’re really good.)

Chris is a prominent figure in Silicon Valley. An expert in user experience, he’s designed products at Google and Uber and has been involved with some of the biggest names and movements to come out the Californian tech capital. He helped drive the success of Mozilla Firefox, invented BarCamp — which popularised the ‘unconference’ conference model — and opened San Francisco’s first co-working space. But it’s inventing the hashtag for which he is best known.

“It’s a little bit bizarre,” Chris explains from a café in Puerto Rico (which is how we know about the #bar). “People just assume the hashtag has always been there, but there was certainly a period in the early days of social media where most of us were publishing blog posts and text like we’d always done.”

The hashtag had a difficult birth and only became what it is today because of Chris’s dogged persistence. Back when Twitter was called Twttr and the tweets arrived by SMS (costing the user money), Chris identified the need to filter the content coming through so people only saw what they were most interested in.

He took the concept of channels and command lines from IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and tags from Flickr and worked with the tools available on the hardware-based keyboards of mobile phones in the pre-smartphone era (the * and the # keys).

“I sent it to everyone and asked ‘what do you think about this?’”

Undeterred by Twttr’s rejection, Chris knocked on the doors of developers who were building apps on the Twitter API and set about convincing them of the benefits of hashtags.

“I was pushing a boulder uphill but more and more apps kept adopting the idea, Twitter started to acquire those apps, and rather than remove the hashtags, they just built it into the service,” Chris says.  

“So it was very much a Trojan horse thing. I never worked for Twitter, I was just a user, but through this grassroots approach I was able to effect this change.”

The first ever hashtag, for the record, was #BarCamp.

At the moment, Chris’s life is all about change. He said goodbye to San Francisco in February this year and became a “digital nomad” — which is why he was in Puerto Rico for this interview. His current travel plans include Lisbon, Amsterdam, New York, London and Perth. (Naturally, there’s a hashtag; you can follow Chris’ journey at #MessinaOdyssey.)

As this change in life might suggest, Chris is in a reflective mood.  He’s worried about the impact the digital technologies created in the past 15 years are having on our culture.

“The users of these technologies were suddenly given these powers to share their thoughts and to read information that they hadn’t had through history and, in many ways, were not prepared for this — and we’ve seen that in the rise of fake news, and manipulative media and advertising.

“It’s very hard for a naïve technology user to always decide or tell what is reputable information versus what is false or misleading information.”

Despite this, Chris is optimistic about the future which involves changing the founder culture in Silicon Valley.

“The founder’s culture becomes our culture. We need a more humane instinct,” he says.

Perhaps Chris’s #MessinaOdyssey — this ‘time to think’ — will lead to a creation that will surpass the hashtag as the thing he’s most famous for?

But if it doesn’t, is he worried one day his epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Chris Messina, #dead’?

“I kinda hope it does,” he says. 

“Two-hundred million hashtags are used on Twitter alone every day.

“It’s humbling to realise and recognise the impact our contributions can make to people’s experiences and, second, for me personally, to also have ridden the wave of technology and social media.”

Chris is speaking at the State of Social 2019 Conference on June 25, 2019.

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