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.