For iPhone fans, it really was too good to be true. A pair of Apple executives had just described the latest model of the iPhone — the 3GS — onstage at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2009. The audience loved it. The 3GS was twice as fast as its predecessor, it included a camera that shot video, and the updated iPhone operating system enabled multimedia messaging and tethering — the ability to use the phone as a modem. Just one problem: While many customers in Europe and Asia could enjoy all those features, AT&T, the iPhone’s sole US carrier, wouldn’t allow video messaging or tethering at launch. In other words, the most advanced features wouldn’t be available to AT&T customers. What’s more, some current iPhone users who wanted to upgrade wouldn’t get the subsidies that new customers enjoyed. Incensed iPhone fanatics vented their fury on Twitter. “AT&T has been one disappointment after another.” “Is AT&T trying to squeeze more money from us poor suckers?” And they punctuated their complaints with a hashtag — the Twitter convention for grouping conversations — that became an eight-character protest slogan: #attfail.
About a week later, AT&T backed down and agreed to extend the subsidy to some existing iPhone users, but that didn’t appease its many critics. In the following months, the #attfail tag would serve as a kind of primal-scream therapy, a chance to rage against every perceived indignity that AT&T had forced upon them. Dropped call? #attfail. Data service unavailable? #attfail. Bad customer service? #attfail. The hashtag popped up on Twitter more than 5,000 times over the next six months, according to research firm Trendrr.