For all of Twitter's social innovation, the creation of the #hashtag may be its greatest misstep.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
One of the pleasures of etymology is the haphazard freedom it reveals in language, a process of generational improvisation and forgetfulness that depends on consensus and repetition more than order and logic. Though we live in a time of celebrated individual voices and personal achievement, it can never be forgotten that the language we use is not really our own. All of our habits of expression depend on the standards of time and place, we are buried under the epochal differences in manners, grammar, education, and mechanisms for distributing written language. Twitter has been among the fastest growing mechanisms for capturing and distributing language, a technical tool that captures the particular constraints of language our generation is trapped in and limited by.
This week, The New York Times social media staff editor, Daniel Victor, wrote a criticism of the role hashtags play on Twitter, both as a tool for searching content as an aesthetic device. Victor uses this year's Super Bowl as an example, where the event hashtag was used about three million times during the five hours the game was on-air. "Though there were peaks and valleys, 3 million tweets over five hours comes out to an average of 167 tweets per second," Victor wrote. "To say that someone would have to search for “#SuperBowl” in the split-second you sent it would actually be a little generous; assuming they’ll notice your tweet if it’s in the most recent 10 tweets, users would have a window of 1/17 of a second to find you."
Hashtags force self-importance to express itself in the crudest of all possible forms, attaching woefully misplaced sentiments to literally coded #subjects sent to take advantage of other people's attention spans and gullibility.
Victor's argument hinges on a belief that participatory irrelevance is a bad thing, and that the ultimate goal of Twitter is influence through exposure, a concern Victor presumably makes on behalf of his employer. Because the channels of producing and distributing language are no longer centrally controlled, companies whose identity depends on status and influence are frustrated by Twitter's equivocating effect. The faux-neutrality of the journalistic voice and the portentous weight of A1 headlines stink of self-importance when relying on social distribution networks to have an impact.
Twitter doesn't just make stories visible and connected to timely events, but it makes the certain kind of people interested in those stories visible as a type. In the old days, there was no concept of audience visibility and so media companies that traded in language could define their own identities, but with Twitter the audience merges with the content, the story becomes the social stereotype. Frenzies of hashtagging are not inconvenient flaws in the system but media self-importance embodied, the elephantine stampede from subject to subject, not because it's important or worthwhile, but because of an animal tingle triggered by the forming of crowds.