The Great Hashtag Debate of 2009

by Karoli on May 3, 2009 · 12 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!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ursulas May 4, 2009 at 1:22 am

Anyone who feels the need to personally attack a voice or a person with a voice has huge insecurity issues going on. I don't care what forum it happens in. I've seen it before.

Sorry it happened to you, Karoli, especially since you offer a voice of reason.

2 Karoli May 4, 2009 at 1:46 am

It's really okay. It has been an interesting way to really hammer down how I feel about hashtags, track, community, and disruption. All happening in real time. I don't want to dwell that much on the personal aspects of things, because they are what they are. I do confess to wanting an opportunity to speak my mind about my perception of the impact of antagonistic behavior on causes in a venue that's not sitting on someone else's real estate.

I know there are some who say that publishing this post somehow undermines progressives as a group. I disagree. I think it speaks to our strengths as a grass-roots, bottom-up group of diverse people. At the same time, we're imperfect and human. That's all there too.

3 Jennyjinx May 4, 2009 at 6:56 am

I joined that discussion last week because I like the idea of #p2 and because I was curious about some folks setting policy for a hashtag. I've always believed the rule for tags to be just what you've stated here: free agents that are either adopted or ignored by the wider Twitter audience– but there is no real organization.

As someone who wasn't emotionally involved in the evolution of the tag, I found myself more than a little irritated with the power grab going on over the weekend. A tag is a tag is tag unless it becomes recognized by the Twitterverse as a whole. Those uninvolved with it or who aren't following someone that has been are going to use it as they see without hunting down the wiki explanation (which they would no doubt look in the Twitter Fan Wiki if they did look).

I don't think the hashtag “movement” is actually going to be hurt by this infighting. I think it's more that those that are doing the infighting are going to find themselves irrelevant because their followers are going to tune them out by either unfollowing them or putting them in the “fourth” column in Tweetdeck. And the tag is still going to be used by Progressives to tag what they feel is a Progressive issue tweet and, probably soon, by Conservatives to poke at Progressives (just like we did to them with #tcot). I, as someone who has recently adopted #p2 and believes in Progressive causes, will continue to use the tag my way while not listening to squabbling egos. The best thing about Twitter is the unfollow option.

And I completely disagree that this post is going to undermine Progressives. How is that possible? By explaining something that hundreds of people have been witnessing in their Twitter streams anyway? The progressive movement is stronger than a petty argument over a hashtag and some people need to remember that. The other side of the political aisle has tried to lock-step approach and look where that's gotten them.

Thanks for writing what needed to be said.

4 Karoli May 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

Hi Jenny,

I agree with you that Progressives aren't going to be hurt by this for a couple of reasons. First, the vast majority of Progressives are focused on progressive goals, not the politics of tech and twitter. Second, no matter how much bickering we may do as a group, when it comes to uniting around a goal, progressives shine.

As to the 'hashtag movement', my own preference is that track would be restored and we could do away with the # sign and simply add the designator without chomping through any of our 140 characters. I'm also certain there will be a trendline toward spam and noise in the stream, which is why Steve's post is so right on about people being the greatest value, rather than terms, for track purposes, since tracking high-quality voices is likely to enable discovery of more high-quality people.

Thanks for your thoughts, they're much appreciated.

5 Brad Shannon May 4, 2009 at 6:00 pm

I'm beginning to think that we should all move to tcot. What better way to undermine the use of a hashtag than to infiltrate it with a few hundred (thousand?) people with opposing ideas? If we start replying to all the crap in there and posting progressive links, the stream might be so rapid, and so ideologically dissonant, that a bunch of conservatives stop reading it. I mean, conservatives go there for opinion-reinforcement. We could disrupt that, to some extent.

Not a new idea, of course. And I'd sure as hell use a different account.

6 facebook-2716675 May 4, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Not suggesting flamewars or inane stuff or ad hominem, rather a more concerted effort to disrupt this one supply line of conservative political information.

7 Jon Pincus May 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

Sorry for the belated reply … given your experiences, I can certainly see why you don't want to participate in the community discussions. Hopefully we can change the environment to one where you feel more welcome. In any case, thanks for all your help, and I'm looking forward to working together with you and the rest of the bipartreport folks.

Tracy and I wouldn't have devoted as much time and energy to hashtag activism in general and #p2 in particularly if we didn't understand what's at stake here. “Twitter *is* a strategy” and “Cognitive evolution and revolution” go into detail on my view that it's a unique opportunity to counter the straight, white, male, and geographical privilege of the blogosphere and broader progressive movement.

In politics, a grass-roots movement is only as powerful as the number in the group.

One of the significant things about social network technologies is that they can act as significant amplifiers: relatively-small, tightly-networked groups can accomplish a lot quickly via distributed organizations. Voces Contra las FARC and Join the Impact are two great examples of this. Right now, Twitter is the hottest buzz-creation place online, so the effect is magnified. #p2 is already close to big enough that it can have a major impact. True, all other things being equal bigger is better … however focusing too much on size at the expense of other issues like effective communications and diversity is a recipe for failure.

In terms of your tag truths, I think you're presenting them as a lot more absolute than the reality. Tracy and I have participated in and written about most of the major hashtag activism campaigns, and hashtag behavior is a lot more complex than you're describing. A hashtag has strong tribe-like elements, and tribe leaders and influential members can very definitely shape its evolution. “Building engaged communities that act” from the #p2 wiki is a summary from a few months ago, and “Lessons from Skittles for poets and activists” on the Seminal has more recent discussion. “

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.

I think that's overstating the situation. For example Xaipe and others started using #p2 in a way that was different than our original intent and made some great arguments expanding the group's focus. In the end their view carried the day — incuding convincing me. Nobody saw this as a power grab.

By contrast, people saw Shoq as suggesting that we change the direction of #p2 in a way that was directly counter to Tracy's and my original goals and the preferences of most long-term members. He also attacked and mocked various members, and derided #p2's history and technology. p2info's anti-diversity logo and his explicit disaffiliation with p2pt0 similarly created an atmosphere of hostility. So yeah, it came off to most people as an attempted power grab.

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.

Alas, with a goal of countering white, male, etc. privilege #p2 should continue to expect antagonists to intervene. And like any political discussion online, we should expect trolling: from conservatives, libertarians, and progressives. We'll just need to find effective ways of minimizing the time, energy, and disruption from this. Skittles and infowar: #pman, disinformation, and trolls has a short list techniques that have worked for various Twitter-based activism campaigns.

jon

8 EileenLeft May 29, 2009 at 11:53 am

I have thought about this for some time now too. But I get so outraged at their ignorance, hate mongering and outrageous lies, that I would probably nut up on tcot'ers on a regular basis. I don't want to discourage your idea. Many can play an alternate personality and keep up the good front while dismantling from the inside. I just don't happen to be one of those.

9 EileenLeft May 29, 2009 at 5:53 pm

I have thought about this for some time now too. But I get so outraged at their ignorance, hate mongering and outrageous lies, that I would probably nut up on tcot'ers on a regular basis. I don't want to discourage your idea. Many can play an alternate personality and keep up the good front while dismantling from the inside. I just don't happen to be one of those.

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