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article imageInterview With Nate Ritter, Co-Inventor Of Hashtags - A Twitter App For Reporters

By Angelique van Engelen     Dec 14, 2007 in Technology
Are you a reporter using Twitter? Then you should know about Hashtags. It potentially could be as explosive as the news it facilitates; hashtags are a way to track a specific topic or event on Twitter. I interviewed Nate Ritter, the site's co-inventor.
Nate, who are you professionally?
I am a web developer and entrepreneur. At parties, I have a hard time answering the question “What do you do?”. Usually I end up shortening it to “I create businesses, usually using the web, and sell them.” That seems to sum it up. I love creating new projects, helping people anywhere I can, and facilitating awesomeness. Professionally, this means I (usually) get paid to create value in people’s lives by consulting small businesses and non-profits on web and business strategy. I also make a good portion of my monthly revenue by using the 10+ years of web development in my back pocket.
- Hashtags reportedly allows for hyper-instant communication. In case of disasters or breaking news events, tweets by people who happen to be in the area are instantly delivered. Can you tell me some more about
It is a new service coming out soon. It’s pretty limited right now, but the concept is wonderful. lets you search twitter for contexts (events, places, subjects), etc. It should be available soon and it will be a great application for finding relevant people and twitter feeds talking about these contexts.
- What is your role in the company?I am helping a few brilliant guys promote this website and make it better.
-What is the background to this?
You know those people who follow every trend, buying the coolest $175 jeans from Lucky? Well, that’s me minus the money and the jeans, but add in the newest free web application. I get an account almost everywhere. So, I’ve been twittering for about a year now (which is about a year late to the party apparently). I didn’t really see the point of it at the time. More ways for people to talk about their breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Then something crazy happened. The San Diego fires… Suddenly news was the primary use for Twitter (at least for me). Not only could I receive news, but I could then aggregate other formats and publish at an astonishingly fast pace with distilled information. It was great for everyone.
- How do you see news in a Twitter context?
I’ve broken news about companies I’ve worked for in the past. But, I rarely have had juicy info to tell people about. The San Diego fires was the first time I consistently broke news. This time, for 3 days straight at about once per minute, sometimes faster.
I now learn about news via Twitter every day. Earthquakes, floods, political news (although I am not that political), and more. Most of that is kinda bad news, so it’s no different than what the traditional media is reporting on, it’s just faster (I knew about the San Francisco earthquake literally 8 seconds after it happened). Other (more positive) news is harder to come by without being very intentional on who/what you subscribe to. Many of whom I follow on Twitter relay positive news about all kinds of things which affect my personal and private life to a certain degree, and that’s about the moment “news” actually becomes important.
-So what happened on the ground in the San Diego fires?
Craziness, that’s what. It began with one or two smaller fires outside of San Diego. Because of the weather conditions it turned into a sporadic inferno for millions of people. When I saw the turning point from “oh, there’s this fire over there” to “we can’t control them”, I started twittering about the fires. I had only about 30 people “following” me at the time I started. Within a few minutes I had been contacted by people in Virginia. A few hours later Florida. A few hours after that India. Each time someone asked about an area, I responded via Twitter.
By the time the fires had been mostly contained, they had reached the ocean, almost a million people had been evacuated from their homes, and many traditional media outlets had proven that they couldn’t relay information fast enough. I had 350 new followers and probably 1000 people actually seeing the news I relayed during the day. I had helped thousands of people navigate the county to evacuate, bring assistance and food to evacuees, and find out information about their homes, families and friends. When it all settled down, I had over 1500 updates in the course of 36 straight hours over 3 days, a local witness hotline, and every communication device I owned tuned to fire information. All of that was relayed over Twitter to people all over the world. Quite amazing, actually.
-What do you think the opportunities are for creating a news service that newspapers would be interested in?
I follow BreakingNewsOn on Twitter now because they are pretty good at distilling world news into 140 characters. I think it only takes a cell phone with unlimited text messages (for Twitter) and a Flickr account (you can email your cell phone photos straight to your Flickr account). If reporters wanted to do voice or video interviews, I think that’s the only mobile thing left to integrate properly. There’s a few apps out there, but I don’t believe any of them do the job perfectly.
Lastly, we need a centralized hub where all this information can be aggregated and distributed. This is where the idea of the Aggregated Citizen News Network came out of (after the fires). A few people and I have been looking at new technologies and trying to figure out what the best possible ways to use all these wonderful things we have now for the best possible news. The results should be very intriguing.
-Do you have any ideas to create Twitter based apps like widgets?
I have not looked into Twitter based apps or widgets. I think there’s a ton of very capable developers creating some very awesome things out there already. I don’t see any needs that can’t be filled by one of these already, other than what I mentioned above.
-What do you think Twittering reporters could contribute to the world?
Speed and signal (as opposed to noise). Accuracy is debatable still, and there is always the potential for people to exaggerate and spread panic. But, I believe in the awesome people overcoming the stupid in the end.
-If you could collaborate on a Twitter app/newspaper feed, what would be your role?
I think probably an editor. I am pretty opinionated about what makes worthwhile news.
-What other business activities are you involved in and why are they cool?
Hmm.. That’s a great question. I’ll try to sum them up. is a business I’ve been running for a few years. It is cool because in Bellingham, WA, when I lived there, there was a severe lack of good information about what rental properties were available (Craigslist didn’t exist there yet). So, I built a web application for the property managers to list their properties.
A new company I’m very excited about is called and generates job leads for construction contractors. It’s not quite ready for prime-time yet and it’s in a very unsexy (for us web workers) industry. But, I like unsexy industries. They’re usually low competition and high profit. I’m excited about this one because the timing is perfect for the construction industry to jump into the web, although they’re about 15 years behind everyone else.
And then there’s projects like It isn’t a business, just a project. The idea is to take awesome photographs licensed under a Creative Commons license and aggregate them together under one theme. With all the photographers’ giving their ok to the project, they get $1 for every photo published in every book that’s sold. Right now, we’re doing a run of 50 books for the theme, “Old”. We’ve gotten some great feedback from people and are very excited about the project, to the point that we’d like to extend it into new themes. It’s cool because it ends up giving money to those who never asked for it, but are very talented and deserve it.
-What did you study in school?
Because I started college when I was 24 instead of 18, I studied the intricacies of procrastination and avoidance — a true life skill. I truly had a spreadsheet for each class which kept track of every grade I received and what percentage of the entire grade for the class it was. Many times, I never even went to the final test because I knew I could pass even if I completely skipped it.
But, the classes I actually went to because I enjoyed them were business classes. I graduated from Western Washington University with a BA in Management Information Systems. I now have that piece of paper that says I know what I’m talking about.
disclosure: the author, clixy123 is involved in, a platform for twittering journalists. This interview was carried out to determine the interviewee's thoughts about collaboration opportunities combining Twitter with reporting.
This article received an award from Digital Journal's Editorial Board for outstanding citizen journalism. Every Friday, Digital Journal profiles the top news stories from around the world.
For more details on this award and to find other top-rated articles, check out's TopFinds report.
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