The biggest social network in the world has embraced the use of hashtags with open arms. This was a bad idea.
The first time I heard the word "hashtag" spoken it was by my boss's boss, an editorial manager instructing his staff of writers how to better publicize the content we were finger-vomiting into the social vortex. Before Twitter, publishers and media brands were the center of social swarms. After Twitter, the swarms realized they were more interesting than the front pages, and media brands had to try and ride the aggregate trends of self-interest to maintain the impression of relevance. Hashtags were a way of swimming against the tide of marginalia that flushed every self-important story to the bottom of a million feeds half a minute after it had been released.
Hashtagging doesn't call for engagement, simply replication. It creates a formula where different objects and subjects can be swapped in, offering the momentary illusion of novelty, but whose ultimate meaning is an anti-intimate gesture of disengagement.
This week Facebook announced it would be taking Twitter's hashtag approach to data organization for its own mess of social droppings. Like many of Facebook's recent additions, the move demonstrates a gradual abandonment of its strength as a media form freed from the impositions of "important subjects," as determined by sources outside yourself.
That hashtags use group behavior to determine importance rather than editorial fiat does not make them any more empowering or personal, it only shifts the ownership of that authority from a big media conference room to the superego of ten million strangers.
"During primetime television alone, there are between 88 and 100 million Americans engaged on Facebook—roughly a Super Bowl-sized audience every single night," Facebook's Greg Lindley wrote in a blog post announcing the update. “To bring these conversations more to the forefront, we will be rolling out a series of features that surface some of the interesting discussions people are having about public events people, and topics."
Writing for The Awl, Benjamin Walker describes the longterm effect of the hashtag on Twitter as having created "a dulling sameness of phraseology," a handful of reliably cliched context-changers, "which come at you like a Greek chorus of unoriginality ... everyone tweeting the same goddamn horrible stupid empty phrases over and over again."
Communicating with a hashtag is an immediate signal of disingenuousness, a sign that the foregoing statement has a hidden subtext, which the hashtag sloganizes without ever justifying. It creates a space where everyone can use pretexts to add new forms of insincere language to their social exchanges. Hashtagging doesn't call for engagement, simply replication. It creates a formula where different objects and subjects can be swapped in, offering the momentary illusion of novelty, but whose ultimate meaning is an anti-intimate gesture of disengagement.
This has made the hashtag an ideal way to advance marketing initiatives because it is, by nature, impossible to achieve intimacy with a corporation. Our relationship with companies who want to sell us things should be stiff and mechanical, but it testifies to the underlying rot in Facebook and Twitter that their approaches to structure is to default to terms that favor commercial exchange.
Facebook's efforts to monetize the goodwill of its users in recent years has been an encyclopedia of mistakes, an acknowledgement that the original social needs that led people to want to participate on the platform are, at heart, opposite to the needs the company has to make money.
It could be claimed that hashtags are useful ways for cutting through the disorder of a platform that allows anyone to say anything, but randomness and disorder are the central appeal of social media. The living unpredictability that makes it feel like one is missing out on when it's not in-hand was the power and promise of social media. The more that stream is ordered by the superstructure of hashtags and branding movements, the easier it is to feel like you're not missing out on anything. As soon as a social media platform reveals its boilerplate, it becomes passé, something you can walk away from without feeling like you're missing out.
Communicating in hashtags is another way of commemorating the fact that we're barely communicating with one another anymore. The order it presumes to add to Facebook isn't a social one, as Lindley's Super Bowl metaphor makes clear. Ironically, much of the disruption in the social flow of posts that hashtagging is meant to address—for example, the pinning of posts to the top of a person's newsfeed because of popularity of algorithmic relevance—is derived from the toxic marketing logic that says anything can be made important simply because it draws attention to itself.
Socializing in ways that can't be tracked, bannerized, or even properly understood without some sense of the private lexicon shared between two people, requires chaos and messiness. In the early years of Facebook it was that sloppiness that spoke so well of the service. Hashtags are first gestures at taming a million different attitudes, experiences, and vernaculars into one common language, composed of relations between units of attitude, self-satisfied endpoints that want only self-replication and portability. The only person who would want a tool like that would be someone with something to sell, like my old boss, suddenly marveling at the potential to reach a Super Bowl-sized audience for free.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.