The sudden bushfires in the San Diego region of California in August 2007 helped to introduce hashtags to a wider audience.
The # symbol was first used on Twitter by San Francisco based Technologist and Twitter user Chris Messina (@chrismessina) on 23rd August 2007 in a short post which read: ‘how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]? Immediately after that not much happened with hashtags. All they were doing for the next two months was ‘waiting’ for the right disaster to appear, so that they could show their potential to the world. Then it came on 20 October 2007 when sudden bushfires started in the San Diego region of California. That event helped to introduce hashtags to a wider audience and proved that disaster is their foundation stone.
When the San Diego bushfires started on 20 October 2007 Nate Ritter (@nateritter) started monitoring news media sources for any information about it and then rapidly (even every two-to-three minutes) posting information about the fire, road closures and neighborhood evacuations on Twitter. Ritter described it as an exercise in citizen journalism. (Bieglow, 2014)
His first Tweet (Figure 1) read: ‘Ok, I’ll be twittering the San Diego fires now’ and was posted at 10:32am (6:32pm in London) local time in California. The first Tweet was followed by another (Figure 2) that read: ‘San Diego fires: State is pushing 1000 fire engines to Southern California… They’ll have to head down I-5 since I-15 is now closed’
The two above Tweets were posted within less than 15 minutes. What is significant about them is that they both contained the phrase ‘San Diego Fire’. Chris Messina (@chrismessina), the founder of hashtags, which at that time were most likely only popular amongst his friends, was one of the first people who noticed his Twitter broadcast. On his blog Messina noted:
Earlier today, my friend Nate Ritter started twittering about the San Diego fires, starting slowly and without any kind of uniformity to his posts. He eventually began prefixing his posts with “San Diego Fires”. Concerned that it would be challenging for folks to track “san diego fires” on Twitter because of inconsistency in using those words together, I wanted to apply hashtags as a mechanism for bringing people together around a common term (Messina, 2007)
Messina wanted to come up with a hashtag that would become widely adopted (‘I wanted to apply hashtags as a mechanism for bringing people together around a common term’). In order to do that, he checked Flickr’s Hot Tags to see what tags people were already using to describe the fires. Figure 3 shows how he managed to identify the most hashtagable phrase – sandiegofire using Flickr.
‘Sandiegofire’ was neither the most popular nor obvious word to become a hashtag. Flickr’s Hot Tags contained at least another 9 words or phrases (santaanawinds, harrisfire, witchfire, witchcreekfire, brushfire, wildfire, fires, wildfires or malibufire ) that could have become hashtags. The decision to use sandiegofire was most likely caused by the fact that Ritter was already using ‘San Diego Fires’ to identify his content and although it was not the most popular hashtag on Flickr, Messina thought it ‘had the best chance to be widely adopted, and that would also be recognizable in a stream of updates’ (Messina, 2007). Messina then contacted Ritter with his suggestion and after a few hours Ritter started using the hashtag #sandiegofire (Figure 4) in his broadcast.
It took exactly 1 hour 23 minutes and about 50 Tweets of almost continuous posting by Nate Ritter (1 Tweet in less than 2 minutes on average) before the #sandiegofire hashtag got some engagement. The first user to join this broadcast by posting their own Tweet with #sandiegofire hashtag was @biz_line (Figure 5). The Tweet read: ‘I’m incompetent with a camera trying to photo my latest info product. I’m incompetent with camera! #sandiegofire All classes at SDSU.’
After another almost 3hrs and 44 Tweets from Nate Ritter, another person joined the broadcast. It was Duncan Rawlinson (@lastminute), who in his Tweet was looking for very specific information: ‘#sandiegofire if anyone in the twitterverse has specific info on fallbrook rice canyon fire msg me plz thanks.’
After another 25 Tweets from Ritter and 5hrs after the first use of #sandiegofire, user @dabloguiman provided information about #sandiegofire hashtag in Spanish language (Figure 7).
Gradually more and more people started using #sandiegofire and it became a big breakthrough in the history of the hashtag. It was Nate Ritter who initially posted the vast majority of Tweets with #sandiegofire hashtag, but very soon others started joining in in large numbers. One day after their initial use, there were more and more people joining in and the hashtag became more multiuser (Figure 8). In terms of the way #sandiegofire was used, some differences started emerging. Most people used it to talk about the actual event – some of them copied what Ritter did (@hannabanana) and focused on providing ‘news-style’ Tweets. Others used #sandiegofire to promote their blog posts (@waderockett).
Regardless of their intentions, they all contributed to what was the first hashtag broadcast. The channel was opened by Nate Ritter, who was inspired and instructed by Chris Messina and it was Messina’s friends who became the first contributors. Eventually Nate Ritter and Chris Messina lost their control over #sandiegofire and it became a truly independent multiuser broadcast shaped by other users’ engagement. Jerry Sheehan (in Bigelow, 2014) then chief of staff at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) commented that:
The use of the # in the public safety event allowed the media to essentially turn citizens into news gatherers. If you remember the ’07 fires, there was a fair amount of crowdsourced content that was facilitated by Twitter. This crowdsouring impulse for data gathering would lead to lots of great tools (…)” Jerry Sheehan (in Bigelow, 2014)
The San Diego fires stopped after few days and the #sandiegofire hashtag become less active for a while. It is being continuously reactivated during anniversaries of the 2007 events and every time when fire happens again in San Diego. There is also an ongoing discussion on the #sandiegofire broadcast about #sandiegofire as the first successful use of hashtags.