The Power of Hashtags

by Charles C. W. Cooke
They’re a mighty tool—for enabling Groupthink.

About a decade or so ago, the perennially grumpy British comedian Jack Dee, started to complain about the fawning language that was being used to describe the Internet. They call it “the information superhighway,” Dee griped. “They call it ‘surfing’ the net. It’s not surfing. It’s typing in your bedroom.”

This was a thoroughly well deserved putdown — the “they” in Dee’s sentence referring to an industry that was becoming almost impossibly self-important, and that has only got worse since. I say this as a techie who hates techies and as a lover of computers and the Internet who is invariably appalled by what the promise of new services does to the brains of otherwise sensible human beings. Spend a few hours in San Francisco or Austin and you will meet a host of caricatures who appear to have had all everyday words surgically removed from their brains, a greasy marketing dictionary being installed in their place. These are the annoyingly earnest types who have taken the language of the operating system and applied it to their daily lives — the people who work not in industries but in “spaces.” You don’t chat with them, you “interface.” You don’t go out for lunch, you “aggregate,” and, if the lunch plans go “viral,” you hope that the restaurant is “scalable.” In discussions, you don’t agree with one another, but “express yourself together,” “find a common voice,” and “converge.” Each and every idea is the product of a “paradigm” or a “framework.” It’s tiring. Have a photograph you’d like to share with your parents? That’s an “exciting new possibility for customization.” Here, nothing is just okay; everything is revolutionary. A phrase you don’t hear too often in Silicon Valley: “Sure, that’s useful I guess.”

So habitual is the instinct that we have begun to mistake the medium for the message and the content for its delivery mechanism. The hashtag, which has in just a few short years been transmuted from an ad hoc means by which a sea of struggling and oppressed Iranian protesters might collate their tweets into a dangerous invitation to Groupthink, is venerated nonetheless as the changer of worlds and the dynamo of insurrection. Whether abroad or at home, we are obsessed with how many people are talking about a particular topic, and where the swarm is trending. But we are less interested, it seems, in what they are saying. Now, mass and frequency are held to be more important arbiters of importance than is quality. Thus, as Mollie Hemingway points out, did the mass of abject nonsense that followed the Isla Vista shooting become widely and reflexively described as “powerful” when it clearly is no such thing. Thus do hapless and unknown PR executives with a few hundred followers become the instant subject of worldwide witch-hunts. Thus do semi-literate attention-seekers believe that their humorless indignation is representative of social change and not of what happens when you combine scolding self-importance and a collection of sad and lonely people who are longing for public catharsis.

Hashtags, like most tools, are neutral things. If someone starts an amusing joke, it can be nice to collect the contributions together in one place. No doubt, too, it is profitable for those with esoteric ideas to be able to discover others who share them. But, by and large, the tool primarily serves as a boon to the mob — as a rallying cry for a pile-on, and an unhealthy means of assuring that your offerings are directed at people who will back them up with vigor. Any tweet that has “#tcot” or “#p2” or “#uniteblue” attached to it is invariably more stupid than one without, in large part because the author is expecting affirmation and not criticism. That goes double for anything that is sectarian along non-ideological lines. And, apparently, it goes triple for any movement that is provoked by tragedy. The most recent example of the lattermost is the #YesAllWomen hashtag, which appeared in the aftermath of the weekend’s shooting in California, and featured a cabal of online performance artists who had not only taken the ramblingly misogynistic manifesto of a very sick young man at face value but had quickly employed it as a general cudgel against all men. One tweet, thrust into the universe by Adelaide Kane, claimed that “Not ALL men harass women. But ALL women have, at some point, been harassed by men.” This, Kane, suggested, was “Food for thought.” More than 5,000 people evidently agreed, retweeting and favoriting it until it had risen to the top of the trending lists for all to see. What does one think happened to anybody who dared to question whether this was, in fact, true? Was Twitter a virtuous means by which a “dialogue” might be started? Or was it merely a “framework” within which the Sisters of the Travelling Hashtag could band together and dismiss as a “rapist” anybody who displayed the temerity to challenge the hive?

By its nature, the Internet is going to attract extremes. Drawn in by the unholy combination of ease and distance, the dregs of society have found a safe home at last — a place in which, protected by a guarantee of anonymity, they might turn the comments thread under a YouTube video about covalent bonding into a disquisition on the merits of Nazi Germany. But not everyone who takes part in a collective is going to be unlovely. On the contrary: A large number of those who are easily absorbed into the mob are extremely nice and, outside of the heat of the moment at least, moderate in temper and happy to engage with their critics. But as television has taught us, people who would otherwise never dream of contributing to a particular conversation will do their level best to provide an answer when a microphone is pushed into their face. Twitter’s little moments do precisely the same thing, tempting the typically disengaged to pick up pitchforks and rush forward toward the gates. Hashtag, shmashtag. Surfing, schmurfing. The mob is no less ugly if we call it “crowdsourcing” instead.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.