Chris Messina, the former Google designer who first proposed that Twitter adopt the hashtag — or “pound” symbol, as it was called at the time — has explained on Quora why he never bothered to apply for a patenton the idea.
A patent could have given him ownership of hashtags as an HTML-activated device that allows Twitter users to sort their feeds by topic. In theory, he could have licensed hashtags to Twitter made a huge sum of money.
Of course, that’s not what happened.
Messina first proposed that Twitter users use a hashtag to create “groups” back in 2007. Here is his famous, first-ever tweet using a hashtag:
But Twitter rejected the idea, he later told the Wall Street Journal:
“[Twitter] told me flat out, ‘These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on.'”
Now, of course, even Facebook has adopted the hashtag as a news feed sorting mechanism. Twitter would be almost unusable without hot-linked hashtags.
On Quora, Messina explained why he chose to let the hashtag become a free device anyone can use and not a licensable product that he could have made money from:
- 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, which was broad-based adoption and support — across networks and mediums.
- I had no interest in making money (directly) off hashtags. They are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one. The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea.
Messina is now head of community and growth at Neonmob, an art trading web site.