The Great Hashtag Debate of 2009

by Karoli on May 3, 2009 · 116 comments

Or… how I managed to spend my weekend herding cats

Background stuff
Before I get started, I should probably just lay down a couple of definitions. A hashtag is a descriptive term, a tag identifying some piece of content with an idea or a category, preceded by the pound sign (#) to tell Twitter and Twitterers that it is a tag rather than simply another word in the tweet. Hashtags are specific tags used on Twitter to identify a tweet with a larger group of related tweets, or like-minded people on twitter, or groups, or memes (see #followfriday as an example of a meme).

In the political Twittersphere, conservative groups self-identify by tagging their posts with the term #tcot (top conservatives on Twitter.) The progressive groups have been far more fractured, not uniting around one single tag. At least, not officially.

Finally, my own opinion of hashtags on Twitter: 1) They consume tweetspace; 2)they’re spam magnets; 3) as tags trend upward, they invite noise. Steve Gillmor sums it up:

You can point the conversation at a subject domain via hashtags, or at several users with @replies (now @mentions). But hashtags form swarms that are vulnerable to noise, with management issues slowing down realtime to the point where it’s not worth it.

He’s right, of course. But since we still don’t have track, hashtags remain a flawed, but effective means of discovering people and content of interest to the progressive community.

Yeah, so what’s the big deal?
My involvement with the progressive community online is no secret. It’s a large part of my focus these days. I’m writing for the Bipartisan Report, teamed up with Francine on US Health Crisis, and spent the better part of last year talking politics (of tech and the US and just about everything in between) on Newsgang Live. Bipartisan Report was created to counterbalance the TCOT Report, a Drudge-clone site that promotes the conservative viewpoints on Twitter and PJTV.

It made sense for me to start identifying what I’m writing with the cause I’m writing it for. Seems easy enough, right?

Wrong, or at least, it appeared to be wrong. A hunt for progressive tags on Twitter turned up #rebelleft, #topprog, #p2, #tlot, and many others. Each tag seemed to either overlap or associate with one group’s agenda, rather than be an overall tag that simply said “progressive”.

Let me stop here and be clear: I just want to identify stuff I write in a way that lets it reach the audience I’m trying to reach. That’s the bottom line. It’s not really that deep and certainly not technical. It’s really no different than standing outside the airport with a big sign saying “I AM LOOKING FOR YOU”.

There are other goals, too. Facilitating conversation, discovering others with similar (or dissenting) views, catching posts, thoughts, pictures, and people in a bucket where they can be discovered by others.

This classifying, semantic effort is important. Really important, especially to communities who are organizing online for offline efforts; e.g., non-profits, political interests, grass-roots campaigns, etc. If Twitter hadn’t turned track off, it would be far simpler.

Track, unlike search, requires no management. Hits are pushed to you as alerts, or integrated into realtime flows if that functionality is available. Realtime critics accurately portray constant monitoring as unscalable, but we don’t sit waiting for the phone to ring in order to utilize its realtime technology. The real issue is that anyone can potentially interrupt you with a call, most commonly at dinner or at the moment when you finally negotiate a single show the whole family can watch and are running out of time before the youngest’s bedtime even if you fast forward through all the commercials.

In politics, timing is everything. Real time is even more important. Although track has not returned to Twitter users, there have been some efforts, including adding Twitter search and trending topics to every user’s page. Those additions make it even more important to have the ability to identify the swarms and enter the conversation in real time.

Get to the point, wouldja? Or at least the juicy part?
Okay. After talking to a few people, it seemed as though creating a tag as a ‘catch-all’ for progressives would be a good thing, and the tag we agreed upon was #p4p, which would stand for “people for progress”. The idea behind that was to attract not only the liberal/progressive groups, but also the more moderate and sometimes moderate conservatives who might share agreement on issues like healthcare or environmental issues. Seemed like a good idea to me.

Until it was introduced a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly, there was a Twitter Twisting Tempest, magnitude 6.0 or so — I was inundated with direct messages from some folks I knew, others I didn’t, asking why I was trying to introduce something that would directly compete with the trending and somewhat widely adopted #p2 tag. I also had a conversation with Tracy on Twitter about the scope, reach, and overlap with #p2.

I’m going to jump to the end of the story now, summarizing the middle with this: The #P2 tag was created to promote diversity issues. They have a wiki here that has excellent details about their specific goals, mission and focus for the tag.

Good for them. There’s only one problem…trying to control how a tag is used is a little like trying to push a 3-ton greased pregnant elephant through the eye of a needle. Backwards.

Tag truth #1: Tags are free agents. I know this, because I intentionally entered the #tcot stream during the “DrillHereDrillNow” controversy last year. In an effort to balance the noise, we were sending counterpoint signals into their stream by tagging them #tcot.

There wasn’t a dang thing they could do to stop us, because we were as entitled to use that identifier as they were.

Tag truth #2: Tags are organically grown. People may see other, broader or narrower uses for a tag and choose to use it that way. As it begins to catch, the larger group perception of the tag itself changes. This is exactly what happened with the #P2 tag. It was formed for one purpose, adopted for many other purposes, and came to represent something similar to what I imagined #p4p to be.

Bottom line: After a TweetMeet of the core #P2 community, it was agreed that the larger scope of that tag was the community-defined purpose, and as a result, we backed away from the #p4p designation, not wanting to create controversy, competition, or complaints.

This was a boring story, Karoli. Big fat, hairy deal.
Oh, you think I’m done? Heck no. The fun is just beginning. It seems that despite the apparent agreement on Thursday night there was no agreement.

Tag Truth #3: Tags are not trademarked. Or copyrighted. And roses don’t grow by consensus.
The magnitude 9.0 Twitter Twisting Tempest this weekend has been over the idea that if a tag is not promoted, appended, or otherwise used in a manner consistent with, and agreed upon, by the originating community, all actions are hostile power grabs intending to rob the originating community of their voice and control.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s start here: In politics, a grass-roots movement is only as powerful as the number in the group. In other words, if we want to make an impact, limiting reach to a handful via the most basic promotion efforts will not reach enough people to make a difference. Nor will it get enough attention to even create a blip on the radar.

The power of Twitter is the one-to-many broadcast feature. (It’s also extremely powerful when combined with Friendfeed, Facebook, and identi.ca, but that’s a topic for another blog post.) The more “ones” there are broadcasting to the “many”, the more likely to actually move a trend forward and catch some traction. Limiting efforts is self-defeating.

To their credit, the originators of the wiki linked to above and the #P2 tag, Jon Pincus and Tracy Viselli have been above board in how they’ve approached this.

The issues have stemmed from the antagonists in their group. There is one “Major Antagonist” who has made this into a personal vendetta rather than a reasonable debate.

That creates a problem, because the final rule of tags is this:

Tag truth #4: The community that unites around a tag can be just as easily divided by the conduct and attitude of its members.

The #tcot group already had their first meltdown last week. Church denominations divide over how they identify themselves. Non-profit organizations fall apart.

They lose sight of the goal and get stuck in the debate.

This nearly happened twice this weekend with a group of people I respect, because one person was able to have enough influence over others to: a) argue trivia instead of principles; b) use personal attacks as a way to dilute the conversation; c) pollute the dialogue with outlandish claims of power grabs and fiefdoms.

So this too-long post ends with this lesson: Ignore the antagonists, or boot ‘em out. But whatever you do, don’t let them become the defacto voice of your effort; at least, not if you actually want to succeed.

To my Bipartisan Report co-writer David Badash, I hope you read this and understand better where I am coming from. My thanks to Jon Pincus and Tracy Viselli for making an effort to facilitate consensus. I hope you also understand what is at stake here, and why I am opting out of participating in your community discussions, while fully supporting your community efforts.

As long as antagonists intervene to hijack the agenda, no work can be done. It’s as simple as that. We don’t have time to do anything but get the work done.

Let the tagging begin!

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