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No one owns a hashtag

The trending hashtag - a new symbol for democracy?

by Jeff Jarvis On August 1, 2011

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The beauty of a hashtag is that no one can control it.

A hashtag is not like a marketing, media, or political message, whose creator thinks it can be created and controlled. It is not like the namespace in domains, on Facebook and Google+, or in trademarks, for anyone can use a hashtag without permission or payment. It’s not like a dictionary with one definition. It’s not like a word on an FCC list that prohibits or chills its use.

A hashtag is open and profoundly democratic. People gather around a hashtag. They salute it and spread it or ignore it and let it wither. They imbue it with their own meaning. The creator quickly and inevitably loses control of it.

That is what the #fuckyouwashington escapade has taught me: the power and importance of the hashtag as a platform. Hashtags allow us to gather around topics, events, and actions across platforms. Hashtags are in our control.

It’s quaint that some folks lobbied to get me to change the hashtag, as if I controlled it. Some scolded me for not scolding Congress or the GOP or the Democrats or the White House. But what was fascinating about the #fuckyouwashington is how it brought out users’ opinions — rather than mine — on why Washington is fucked up and by whom. Soon after the hashtag got out there, people starting tweeting “#fuckyouwashington for…”, filling in their grievances.

Humorless Washingtonians got pissed at me for supposedly maligning their fair if stifling city. How inane.

hashtagSome wanted me to clean up the hashtag because it offended them. But as I tweeted in response, #dagnabbitwashington would not have had the same impact. It was the profanity about profane politics that made it take off, I believe.

No less than John Perry Barlow (@jpbarlow) and @anonyops tried to change the hashtag to better assure it could get past filters some suspect Twitter puts on its trending topics list. “The hashtag is now #FYW,” they and others decreed. But they made the mistake of thinking they could control this any more than I could. I didn’t much want the discussion to become forked, but I didn’t have anything to say about it either.

By the way, some Twitter folks told Jeff Howe (@crowdsourcing) that Twitter doesn’t filter the Trending list for naughty words. But then, as he points out, their protests don’t explain this and why #fuckyouwashington didn’t make the list.

I don’t much care about the trending list in any case. It is a product of mass-media-think: Only the biggest win, goes that thinking. But online, even the biggest topics are small. Though I think Twitter should be transparent with its statistics, we don’t need it to be, as Topsy, Trendsmap, and Trendistic can count for us. According to Topsy.com, by latest count, #fuckyouwashington produced 84k tweets. In mass-media audience terms, that’s tiny. But then again, how many of those opinions would ever have made it into a letters-to-the-editor column in a newspaper? 84k opinions got expressed and seen by some untold community thanks to the coalescing power of the hashtag.

We don’t want an institution to hold our conversation hostage — not media, not Twitter. Hashtags can free us from that fence. Through discussion around hashtags, we can hear the voice of the people, unmediated.

hashtag#fuckyouwashington got some attention in media — but after the fact. Media are no longer needed to create critical mass. Indeed, appearances on CBS and NBC network news and on the sites of the Washington Post, Reuters, and even German papers didn’t cause spikes in the usage of the hashtag, which is now pretty much petered-out.

Note that well: media now follow the public conversation. That’s as it should be, according to scholar James Carey, via Jay Rosen, who explained his view: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.” That natural state of the relationship of media-to-public is made possible by the hashtag.

The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina only three years ago. So far, its power has been limited to Twitter. But I see an opportunity to expand its use and its empowerment the more it is supported on other platforms. When Google+ finally gets search and when it releases its API, it would be wonderful to see it enable users to easily enter tags and cluster conversations around them. There’s an opportunity to use tag data to learn more about the topicality of conversations and content all around the net, on Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, blogs, Flickr, YouTube, maybe Facebook. There’s our chance to limit the power of these silos.

All that from the humble hashtag.

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Article originally published on Buzz Machine
Photo credits: FlickR CC jeffisageek
SEE ALSO: Adrian Holovaty’s and Chris Messina’s discussion about hashtags and Google+

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