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What the Inventor of Twitter’s Hashtag Knows About Innovation

October 23, 2013
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It was fascinating to read a blog this summer about the invention of the Twitter hashtag

It was fascinating to read a blog this summer by Paul McNamara on “Buzzblog,” which ran under the headline, “Creator of the hashtag explains why he didn’t patent it.” Now, to begin with, who wouldn’t be pulled in by that tantalizing headline…???! In any case, McNamara wrote in that blog the following: “Since debuting on Twitter in 2007, the hashtag has become a ubiquitous tool for connecting and searching, as well as a means of personal expression that has jumped from social media to the lexicon at large. In light of this monumental success,” he wrote, “a Quora user recently posed the question: ‘Why didn’t the creator of (the) hashtag patent the concept?’ No less of an authority than Chris Messina, creator of the hashtag, stepped up to answer.”

As McNamara related it, Chris Messina told him that “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.” And he added this: “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.”

I found all of this quite compelling. First of all, my conceptual hat is absolutely off to Chris Messina for creating something very useful to the world and releasing it, like a gift. Second, I agree with his logic. If a person wants something that he creates to be virtually universally used, then trying to copyright, patent, trademark, or otherwise corporately protect it, doesn’t really make sense, does it…?

Messina’s contribution also speaks to the broader subject of contributions to the collective whole. In healthcare, such contributions are being created and spread every day. Indeed, the whole shift towards what we at Healthcare Informatics have been calling simply “the new healthcare”—the broad shift towards population health management, accountable care, bundled payments, care management, patient-centered medical homes, evidence-based care delivery, value-based purchasing, and so on—that shift is being fueled considerably by collaborative work in patient care organizations nationwide, and collaborations between providers and payers, all of which are providing templates, models, and case studies for everyone.

That architecting the new healthcare is posing a challenge to the pioneers leading change is an understatement. It is the challenge of a lifetime, and the challenge of a generation. But the leaders of hospitals, medical groups, and health systems, in collaboration with progressive health plan leaders, who are helping to shape the new world to which our society absolutely needs to migrate, for purposes of patient care quality, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness improvement, and improvement in the patient and community experience.

And that’s why we at Healthcare Informatics are once again proud and pleased to be able to sponsor our Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards program, our annual program established to recognize the pioneers of the new healthcare. I know personally of numerous dozens of fantastic innovations being created and advanced across the U.S. healthcare system, in hospitals, medical groups, health systems, and health information exchanges. Please consider submitting an entry this year; I know that so many of you are leading important, potentially industry-changing, innovations, out there. As with the hashtag, you won’t be able to trademark your team-based innovation; but if you want to be the Chris Messina of healthcare innovation, now is your chance! This is such an important part of what we do at HCI, I’m delighted to spread the word here and in the coming weeks. Got innovation? Get it out into the field—and be recognized for doing so!