I’m thinking about finally closing comments on my lengthy anti-hashtag screed from February of 2008. My opinion of them hasn’t changed much. But they have taken on more frequent use within Twitter, and in the meantime Twitter usage has grown, spread out, taken on more users with different use cases, and has itself just about fully embraced hashtags. For a long time in Twitter years now, hashtags have linked to a search for that hashtag. The “track” function has long since been deprecated. The launch of the “dickbar” in the iOS Twitter client that surfaces trends whether you want them there or not, and the monetization of “promoted Tweets” which are or appear near hashtag trends, are two more outward manifestations of that.
Wide-open works a lot better when it’s smaller.
I still use it daily and like lots about it, but it has grown into something that isn’t really designed to serve and foster my use case so much. In a sense, I lost. But not just about hashtags – I lost in that it’s not really a place that focuses its user experience on ambient intimacy and small moments any more. When Twitter was smaller, itself a niche community of sorts and somewhat self-selecting, the wide-open, ‘use it how you want to’ nature of it worked well because it was easy to avoid people who were using it in ways counter to how you wanted to. People would call each other out for uses they didn’t agree with, and although that usually resulted in a flame war followed by people going their separate ways, it was a way for different subsets to work out and define their own meaning and use. Many of the power users were some of the folks who had been using it since SXSW, and their use to some extent defined the mainstream use. And their use was generally thoughtful, if name-droppy.
Memory lane: The Twitter Session Bug-out of 08
Speaking of name-droppy, as late as early 2008 when I posted my rant, Twitter was small and thoughtful enough that when I reported a significant bug on my blog, founder @Jack came by to reply directly.
What happened to ambient intimacy?
As Twitter grew and became more a de facto piece of everyone’s “social media tools” than a thing people sought out for its unique attributes, and as “Twitter and Facebook” became somewhat interchangeable in the minds of newcomers, that feeling of deliberate, thoughtful use was subsumed by “use it however you want” and later the notion that “people who are thoughtful about this medium take it too seriously – it’s dreck.” And now, quite often, it feels like a place that focuses on popularity and propagation of memes and finding out what large numbers of people think is funny or newsworthy. When Twitter celebrated 2010, it rounded up things like the “most powerful tweets” and the top trends – all of the big stuff, tabloid style, and none of the small, quiet, meaningful moments that were about small groups not large numbers.
The ability to originate, break, and propagate big news was always an obvious feature and benefit of the system, but at its core what always thrilled me about it was the public/private nature of it. As Twttr, it was created for personal and team communication. And in Twitter, you’re speaking to an audience, but you’re also speaking to yourself – so you consider both without necessarily purely playing to either. You were always sort of stage whispering, and you developed relationships with people outside of your sphere through it, and those relationships may always just be mediated via Twitter – no larger endgame intended. Tweeting about what you had for lunch was a way for people to form added context about you, a replacement for hallway conversations, for the phatic. The spirit behind valuing those aspects of it feels long gone, both from the company behind it and from the community at large. And even from social media marketers/evangelists. When’s the last time someone mentioned the value of Twitter in building ambient intimacy? It’s now just the shoutbox. The big stage, where you hope to get picked up by lots of people. If it wasn’t all along, Twitter is now just another box to shout into, just another MySpace wall. Shel Israel’s notion of “Twitterville” is painfully quaint now, even if at its best it only ever described one utopian, SF-tinged perspective. My Twitter was never Shel’s Twitter, but it also wasn’t the big stage.
I still love Twitter Pokr
It’s not social media; it’s Twitter.
I kept my account private for my first few years so that I could carefully cultivate a reciprocal follower/followed audience. I opened up a year or two ago, and generally have few regrets, but it is definitely a different feeling. I feel like I’m in the minority for not wanting to use it as (a)group IM, (b)a forced public chat room, or (c)exactly the same thing as Facebook updates, cloning one to the other and right down to the use of a missing subject construction (posting “is having steak for dinner.” rather than “Having steak for dinner.”) to refer back to when Facebook was distinguished by its “Dave Coustan is:” status bar.
In the time before Twitter, Biz asked “Who Let The Blogs Out?”
As an example of how the platform has changed, I have a few friends who wonder why I post messages that they don’t immediately understand. Sometimes these are fragments of thoughts, or song lyrics, or a comment on something that I just saw or read or is taking place in my industry. I don’t tweet a ton most days, so it’s not an issue of frequency, it’s that they don’t immediately know what I’m talking about. I’m doing my best to understand why the mostly-joking disconnect is jarring enough to make a friendly joke about. I get it – If you mainly use Twitter as a means to connect with people you know, in places near to you, I guess that may be confusing. Even if you follow a few celebrities and publications in addition to your strong-tie type contacts, it still might seem weird. Why would you post something on Facebook or in a group email that’s opaque, full of inside meaning with outside meaning not immediately apparent, or not immediately decipherable by your entire audience?
From the earlier days, I’m very accustomed to seeing things I don’t understand in Twitter, and researching what they mean, or leaving them alone if I just can’t get them. It’s part of the experience – I follow strangers in other places and unknowns and understand that by following them, it’s on me to make meaning from their statements.
I put things there for safekeeping.
I’ve always used Twitter in those other ways from direct, task-oriented communication. I’ve used it both as a place to post short thoughts to no one in particular, and as a place where I might connect with people of all different contexts, who don’t know each other and may not share the same vocabulary. So sometimes I’m not posting to share with everyone. Sometimes I’m saying things that I know will make sense to just a few people out of the thousand I follow. Or sometimes I’m not posting to share with anyone but myself – a bread crumb trail to follow in the future. I don’t know of a better way to think about a platform where I have 1,000 very different people who follow me, plus those who may find my tweets later via third-party apps and search. The motto of the notebooks I use, Field Notes, is “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” I use Twitter for this sometimes too.
Search is worth the effort.
I still question the true value of hashtags for ‘connecting people with a larger audience’ – a little effort or searching for words and following @replies does the same thing, and there’s extra value in the extra effort. It’s rare when I wouldn’t use search or look for specific people to find out what’s being said about a particular thing. Or I ask. Or I use all of the tools at my disposal – search, Q/A communities, etc. If I want information on a session at SXSW, I’ll find who’s talking about it, and read their tweets specifically, not a disembodied list of all the people who have attached themselves to the word. Or more likely, I’ll seek out material with more context, like a blog entry write-up, some video, a larger conversation. I want to know not just who’s commenting in rapid-fire fashion, but who’s participating at a deeper level and is invested in doing so, whether or not they are classifying their content with a hashtag.
I feel like hashtags are now often joke propagators, contest markers, and potentially helpful dissent or emergency response organizers, and little else. Looking at the list of attendees at a conference and searching for them and their full online context has benefits beyond what you’d get out of just “knowing who’s tweeting there” by checking out the hashtag. It’s a different model of getting to know people that deliberately uses your free time and effort as its own sort of a filter. It’s oldschool, but it’s not anti-social or luddite.
Tweet the hashtag or punch the monkey to win an iPod.
I also question their real value for so many of the brands that use them. Brands that are already deeply ingrained in public online conversation can fluidly use hashtags as part of that dialogue, but creating a new one for an RT-to-win contest or brand-specific end feels like astroturfed folksonomy to me, and I’d love to know how useful they really are in attracting qualified users and not just contest-seekers. Even if this manages to get a hashtag to trend, does that have much real benefit to the brand? Are their fans and potential customers looking for hashtag trends started by brands, mildly-to-extremely promotional in nature, and are they pleased to find them in the trending topics? Too often they are used as a shortcut to logically connecting an experience on the Web to authentic communication about that experience or a fragment of it via Twitter. Or worse, the brand uses them because they are easy to count and measure, even though it’s not always clear exactly what their measurement tells you.
“Tim does what I tweeted: @tmoenk – raise your hand”
At a certain point in its history, especially as mainstream (domestic) use of Twitter shifted squarely away from 40404 SMS messages and to third-party apps and the Twitter web site, it would have been easy for them to create a hidden field for tags, and fully eliminate the need for visible hashtag infrastructure. This wouldn’t stop people from being able to use them, but it would have evolved them, and created new ways to display them, use them, classify them, discover them, etc. This is what I was after. Keeping them visible and un-hidable made them advertising and tied to trends, and thus a quick path to something that was monetizable. It would have taken a subtler turn to evolve them and make them operate one level deeper. My point isn’t to shame them for trying to make money, but rather to acknowledge another reason why hashtags have been something they’ve embraced, beyond the populist love of them. Once Twitter generally scoffed at the idea of creating groups, channels, or tags for high-minded ideological and system design-related reasons. I don’t think Twitter is about opinionated development or purity of system design any more.
Before you shake your fist in *my* direction and ask me what about #iran, #mumbai, and #bieberfever, it should be clear by now that I don’t begrudge the tools any of the good they have done in spreading information and organizing people, but that I think there’s room for growth and evolution – no one can say a different tool or approach wouldn’t have worked just the same or better had it been available.
Ha, when I started, the first thing I wrote here is “maybe someday I’ll feel compelled to write an updated piece about how I feel on hashtags a few years on”, but it looks like I did just that. Most of the people who have come along to comment on my original piece are either flatly agreeing, calling me an idiot, or promoting their own piece of writing about the value of hashtags. I think I’ll close discussion over there at this point, but open season over here. Just consider that I am making it clear right off the bat that I don’t consider myself what would probably be termed a “mainstream Twitter user” any more, so if you don’t understand my opinion on face, consider that we might be looking at the same platform through completely different eyes. And yeah, I guess this was a rant.