Twitter and the Hashtag
Twitter was launched in July of 2006, and the hyperlinked hashtag feature was launched in 2009. Widely used for political expression by individuals, Twitter was a medium in which the recipients were not chosen by the pamphleteer. Instead, published tweets were public, and there were two different ways they could be accessed. The first was from a Twitter user’s followers: on Twitter, the recipients choose the pamphleteer. This necessarily changes the message; for the first time in the history of the political pamphlet, some of the motivation must be to reward one’s followers for reading, because there is no other way to gain reach. Traditionally, the model had gone the other way around, the pamphleteer was rewarded for having published the pamphlet by moving others to respond and reply, and the pamphleteer had a larger amount of control over who saw the pamphlet. That trade-off for that control was a limited reach. Now, suddenly, the pamphleteer was broadcasting his message to the global public, but only by rewarding the reader could he ever hope to reach Twitter’s global public. Indeed, the model of “broadcast publishing” has, at its core, competition with other interest for attention by delegating the control of distribution to the user. Since this is such a formative part of Twitter’s structure, Twitter’s “global public” emphasizes users whose attention is valuable – i.e. consumers. Today, there is a close relationship between attention and capital. Never before has the phrase “no press is bad press” been more applicable.
One standard way to reward the reader is to use a trending hashtag. A hashtag, a meta statement about the message with a pound sign before (Ex: #politicalpamphlet), is a link, that when clicked by a reader, connects all of the tweets (or messages) using that hashtag. Twitter has what are called “trending hashtags,” and these are hashtags currently being used by lots of people on Twitter. This allows would-be pamphleteers to publish their topically relevant messages and have them connect to the larger conversation. There is one big limiter to this easy in though – a tweet, or message, is limited to 140 characters. This means that either the pamphleteer must reduce his message to the most salient point, or he must serialize his message, and release it over several tweets. He must choose carefully because nothing on Twitter remains relevant for very long. Unlike previous eras, in which the nature of the medium was such that everything operated more slowly – news, for example, had to be read of physical paper, which had to be delivered or picked up in the morning, and there was the entire production process on the presses which took time – now everything is instant, and that means it becomes obsolete a lot quicker too. All of this means that the political pamphlet changed in significant ways, such that it becomes legitimate to ask whether the political pamphlet still exists, or whether it is, in fact, a medium made obsolete by social media. One of most famous uses of Twitter as political pamphlet is the Occupy Wall St. movement. During this movement, users published the hashtag #occupy. These were people who were themselves involved in the movement, journalists writing about it, and various members of the public offering their opinions about it. While the hashtag and the tweets went on over a range of time – starting in 2011 and arguably still ongoing – the sub-discussions came and went quickly. Unlike political pamphlets of the past, then, Twitter was creating a space where pamphleteers were publishing their messages at the same rate they might say them out loud in a conversation, and this was powerful because the conversation was with anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people . But the very nature of it was different, and there are two ways to see this – either one might argue that the nature of Twitter was responding to the digital world, and the speeding up of everything, or one could argue that the world sped up because of Twitter.