TOA Podcast Studio: Chris Messina on owning your ideas and imagining new realities
Chris Messina is known as a technologist, evangelist of the open source movement, and the inventor of the hashtag. As part of our TOA Podcast Studio series recorded during the Tech Open Air 2019 conference, Chris spoke about collaboration and ownership in the tech industry, pushing forward and letting go, and the strategies entrepreneurs need to take both personally and professionally to excel in the field and take it forward.
The idea for the hashtag
Chris is famous for inventing technology’s use of the hashtag. When he first had the idea for it, he says, making it proprietary was the last thing on his mind. He hadn’t moved to Silicon Valley to become rich, but to find a community, contribute to culture, and help technology become more ubiquitous and easier to use.
Although his first tweet about the idea for hashtag was less a claim and more of suggestion, Twitter initially dismissed Chris’ idea for the hashtag. But the company later asserted it didn’t want other social media companies to use it after users began to embrace it. That was a turning point for Chris, as he realized the idea had thrust him into the limelight, and he wanted to help shape the narrative.
Use of the hashtag is in the public domain today because Chris wanted it to be open source and available for everyone. He had no interest in patenting the idea to make money off of it, and, in his view, making it proprietary would have inhibited the hashtag’s adoption. Today, the hashtag is used widely, and freely, across all social media platforms.
Keeping the faith
Entrepreneurs and creatives often confront hardship or rejection in the process. It’s easy to feel self-doubt. But if there is something he wishes he knew early on in his career, Chris says, it’s that if you have the best intentions and are open to taking constructive feedback, your inner faith should be louder than your self-critic. “I think there’s a difference between having faith in yourself and being arrogant,” Chris says.
He learned the hard way that just because some people disagreed with his ideas, that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t worth pursuing. “I think I could have probably avoided a bunch of stuff before, where I doubted myself and stopped pursuing ideas, or let things go, or let other people determine or define success for me in moments where I was like feeling particularly bad about myself,” he says.
The key to understanding the fine lines between humility, faith, arrogance and rejection, according to Chris, is making sure your faith in yourself doesn’t dovetail into an unhealthy stubbornness. And that requires deep introspection.
“I think it’s always a difficult thing to figure out how far or how long do you push an idea uphill before you realize like, it’s just not going to happen,” Chris says, reflecting on his experience working with Molly, a conversational AI company he once considered would be a personalized “answering machine” in the era of smart speakers. He left that company after he and his co-founders had a falling out.
“I was willing to be there for a long time, but I started to realize that the conflict and the tension was going to prevent us from actually being able to like, push forward when the headwinds really came at us,” he said.
At that point, Chris says, the healthiest thing for him to do was to step away from that company, even though he was very invested in it and connected to it personally.
Conversational AI and the future
While many people know Chris for steering the trajectory of the hashtag, he also frequently comments on chatbots and voice assistants. Voice interfaces are among the technologies at the forefront of how a new generation of internet users will engage online. That means the boundaries defining digital literacy by will have to increase to accommodate realities outside our own, according to Chris.
Users in the developed world, especially, knew how to read and learned how to type fast because voice interfaces weren’t available until relatively recently. As a result, voice computing, while powerful, has yet to break through as mainstream. But the new generation of internet users not immersed in a world of typing and texting so naturally is at the forefront of the future of voice.
“If you never learned how to type or you don’t know how to like, read for example, but you can speak, you can use voice computers,” he continued. “And so if voice computing is more natural to you, what are the behaviors that you’ll engage in on a more regular basis that we don’t even understand yet?”
That’s why paying attention and imagining outside our immediate periphery is key for driving the future forward, he says. We must strive to capture the subtleties of culture, including the cultures that are not our own and the ways technologies are deployed into those contexts.
The relationship between culture and technology heavily influenced Chris and his experiences with the hashtag and Molly. But understanding that relationship well also traces back to your own experience, he says, and being willing to grapple with what it means to have faith and ownership. “I think it’s about people realizing the power that they have and taking a responsibility for them.”
Stay tuned for each new episode of the TOA Podcast Studio series on the What’s NEXT podcast feed. Co-hosted by TOA and Samsung NEXT, these sessions brought together a dozen of today’s leading minds in technology to share the human stories behind their innovations. To hear more, subscribe to What’s NEXT on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or via RSS on your podcast app of choice.