Investigating the origin of a hashtag that went viral across journalists', politicians', and primary watchers' Twitter feeds last night.
Included amongst last night's big winners: #fitn, the First-in-the-Nation New Hampshire primary hashtag. It was everywhere. Amongst the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum all used it. And it got the press class's seal of approval with a tweet early in the day from the Washington Post's Chris Cilliza, who tweeted, "So, I think consensus hashtag for NH primary tonight will be #fitn. Unless I hear differently..." He didn't. According to the search service Topsy, #fitn was tweeted about 15,000 times on primary day alone.
But where did "#fitn" come from? It might seem an obvious marker for the New Hampshire primary in retrospect, but, in truth, it's not an immediately intuitive hashtag. Cilliza, for one, felt the need to explain its short-hand meaning. And it involves a bit of sloganeering, what with its reaffirmation of the Granite State's unusual -- and contested -- role in the presidential process.
According to at least one history, #fitn was the creation of three New Hampshire Republican politicos.
First, a note about digital forensics in the Twitter age. Twitter is remarkably difficult to search, at least as far as its archives go. A deal with Google to search tweets has run out, and a Library of Congress archiving project is still in the works. A communications rep from Twitter Inc. said yesterday that the company lacks the resources to track hashtags back to their start. And so, piecing together the origins of a hashtag involves both online hunting and picking up the telephone.
When it comes to #fitn, Topsy, one of the better Twitter search tools out there, traces the proto-use of the hashtag back to Drew Cline, the editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.
But it wasn't me, said Cline when I reached him. He instead graciously pointed to Chris Stewart (@freshbuzz), Aaron Goulette (@aarongoulette), and Matt Suermann (@msuermann). "The three of them came up with it together, I believe," emailed Cline.
That's indeed what happened, reports Stewart, when I reached him by phone. "It was the summer of 2010, I think," said Stewart, who runs a consulting shop out of Manchester. "We said, 'Well guys, looking down the field, there's going to be a ton of interest in the first in the nation primary, and we need a Twitter hashtag to reflect that.' So we kinda went around and around, and I think it was Aaron who suggested '#fitn.' It exploded from there. The three of us came up with it, and now everybody's using it. The reason it's so effective is that everyone's on Twitter."
The alternatives to #fitn considered and discarded? "#NHprimary, but that was too generic. Also, #NewHampshire, but other people were using it. The other ideas we had were really bad," he says with a laugh.
#fitn was good enough to catch fire, even if its users didn't know -- or bother to think about -- where it came from. Of course, using the phrase "first in the nation" to refer to the New Hampshire presidential primary predates the hashtag. By law or tradition, the state has held the first presidential primary contest in the country since the 1920s. Twitter didn't even exist back then! But, if the origin story holds true, Stewart, Goulette, and Suermann managed to pack into the event's quasi-official hashtag a confirmation of New Hampshire's special place in political history. That might be one reason why the #fitn hashtag proved particularly popular with the "Huntsman girls," the tweet-happy daughters of the Iowa-skipping former ambassador. The girls tweeted or retweeted the hashtag hundreds of times in the run-up to the contest. (Though it doesn't seem to have helped the Huntsman campaign much last night.)
Stewart explains that he, Goulette, and Suermann know each other from the 2008 cycle, where he volunteered for John McCain, Goulette worked as McCain's regional e-campaign director, and Suermann did field for Romney. This cycle, Stewart's wife ran the state for Huntsman. "We all know each other because Republican circles in New Hampshire are small," says Stewart.
The New Hampshire trio might have unleashed the #fitn on the world, but it's no longer theirs. Goulette tweeted yesterday about receiving a swag jacket from an advocacy group emblazoned with the #fitn hashtag. "Can you trademark a hashtag?" joked Goulette. "Should have done it."
If so, they'd need to find better ways to document its creation, because Twitter and its associated tools aren't much help.