Social Studies 📘🧠
Social Studies
🎧 Chris Messina's thoughts on digital identity, design, and inventing the hashtag (PODCAST)

🎧 Chris Messina's thoughts on digital identity, design, and inventing the hashtag (PODCAST)

Yo! ✌️ I’m Brett! I am a founder and former Cognitive Science researcher. Social Studies is a semi-weekly newsletter for people building great products for humans. It includes recaps of what happened on Tech Twitter every week plus deep analysis using frameworks from Psychology, Economics, and the other Social Sciences.

🤔 Who is Chris Messina?

Chris Messina is Tech Twitter’s Most Inventive #Designer.

He is best known for one thing. He invented the hashtag. Yep. Chris Messina is the man that turned that little character your mom still calls “pound” into one of the most powerful forces in human communication since Twitter itself.

He also opened one of the first coworking spaces and held one of the first unconferences (which is the aforementioned ‘#BarCamp’ in that fateful tweet). Invention is a central piece of Chris’s career.

Chris is also a designer and product consultant with past experience working on products at Google, Uber, and a few startups of his own. He is the #1 hunter on Product Hunt and spends a lot of time helping founders with their launches. If you’re planning a launch, book his time here.

From our conversation:

I just care a lot about making things that people are able to use and to benefit from anddemystifying technologies that feel overpowering and encumbering.

One thing that also stands out about Chris is how he thinks about technology. Chris has thought more about technology from a humanistic perspective than almost anyone else I can think of.

I’ve been a long-time admirer of Chris’s work and just recently got to know him more personally through On Deck and random Clubhouse and Twitter conversations.

🤔 Q&A with Chris

I had a chance to sit down with Chris to talk about a number of interesting topics. You can listen at the top of this post.

Here are some quick takes:

🤔 What gives you the most satisfaction in what you do?

I find satisfaction in being helpful, clever, and insightful. Generally I seem to optimize my time around being “useful”.

🤔What is one thing most people misunderstand about design?

Design, of course, isn’t how things look, nor even necessarily how they work. Design is about manifesting the intention of a creative force, not too dissimilar from the purpose of communication, which is about transmitting information with clarity and fidelity.

🤔What would you say to someone just starting their career in tech today?

Seek answers and hard-won knowledge from those who came before you. You’re probably not the first person to try to solve a problem, though your environment and the tools it offers you may lead you to approach solutions in novel ways.

🤔What would you say to someone deciding whether or not to start a company?

Consider why you want to start a company and whether it’s the right container for your efforts. Starting a company isn’t the same thing as registering a domain name (although it’s become nearly as easy). To realize the benefits of starting a company, you should plan to commit to something for 5-7 years, working on it continuously nearly every day.

🤔What does the future hold for social ?

The tensions between expression, connection, and privacy will become more thorny in ways that I can’t quite predict. The vast majority of software is now social or supports sharing, but not all sharing is created equally. One huge barrier to social technology that “flows like running water” is stable, cross-platform identifiers. The Twitter identity is quite useful and powerful, but clearly not as robust or rich with metadata as Facebook’s. Google’s is general purpose and highly associated with your work identity (not as much as LinkedIn’s, but Sign in with LinkedIn is nearly non-existent). Sign in with Apple is becoming more common too (thanks to their monopoly power) — but may be less useful for the purpose of identity and connection portability. 

Maybe it doesn’t matter that much and people are content to recreate themselves over and over on new and emergent digital platforms, but I’m not so sure. One problem that desperately needs to be solved is cross-platform reputation… and who knows, maybe email addresses will come back en vogue thanks to the rising popularity of newsletters! I recognize that I think of social probably differently than most, but that’s because I believe the most enduring social experiences are built around identity as the platform.

🤔What have you been reading/watching/listening to lately? (newsletters welcome)?

I listen to a ton of podcasts primarily including Techmeme Ridehome, Pivot, The Prof G Show, Exponent, Land of the Giants.

I have subscribed to many newsletters but read none of them, sadly. 

To get a good sense for what I’m reading though, I share a lot of good links on Refind.

🤔What does Twitter mean to you? Who are your favorite follows?

Twitter is connected to my central nervous system. It’s how I stay connected to the world and try to make sense of my digital world, in public. It seems like there’s a new Twittergensia forming with you (Brett), @lennysan, @_patriciamou, @lucymort, @gaby_goldberg, @nbashaw and others. You guys seems to show up disproportionately in my “In case you missed it” section, and I kinda like it.

🏆 Chris’s best tweet

It goes without saying, Chris’s most popular tweet is the literal tweet that birthed the hashtag.

Since I already shared that earlier, here’s Chris’s second most popular tweet. Beautiful SF.

#️⃣ On the hashtag

Every anniversary of the “hashtag tweet” Chris reflects on how the hashtag has changed and what it means for the world. It’s fascinating to see his “#hashtagiversary” reflections change over the years now that the hashtag is 13. Here’s his most recent musings.

I asked Chris what he thought the significance of the hashtag was. This context he gave puts it in perspective:

Human language and human communication are so important to the human experience. So much of what we do is trying to create more clarity and alacrity in communicating with other humans and even with ourselves.

The hashtag 100x’d our ability to clearly communicate online.

🤖 On digital identity

Chris hasn’t shared much on this on Twitter, but he has spent considerable time exploring the digital identity space. In fact, Chris used to have a pseudonymous twitter account: Factory Joe.

He shared the moment he “killed” Factory Joe in our interview:

There was this merger happening between like my online identity and my real life identity that just seemed to becoming cumbersome.

So I changed my username from my previous factoryjoe to Chris Messina and within moments, the factoryjoe handle was registered by someone else!

It was just this moment where I went through a digital death. It gave me a sense of how important these digital representations are and how much we come to identify ourselves through them. What does it mean to actually reveal your true self in the online space?

Pseudonymous separation allows you to express yourself in ways that maybe you feel like you can't in your everyday lived life.

🎨 On UX design

You won’t get a lot of the usual thinkboi hot takes on remote work or the latest IPO from Chris. Chris is a designer at his core, so it makes sense that he spends considerable time sharing interesting takes on designs for products we use every day.


Shout out to Chris for taking the time to talk through his thoughts on everything with me. Be sure to check out this video interview with him! 👇

Social Studies 📘🧠
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A look at the tech industry through the lens of the social sciences
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