Loving the octothorpe; or, why Twitter's hashtags really do reflect reality

This episode of Recovery is brought to you by the Three Wolf Shirt and the newly leaked Palm Pre default ringtone. If one doesn't leave you awash in win, the other will. Both together, however, will probably cause your puny mortal frame to go supernova, so knock that off.

Angela Gunn: Recovery badge (style 2)The new social-media doyenne at The New York Times is dutifully twittering away, asking the community to send suggestions about how the paper could better use the resources available. (Unlike the rest of us, the folks at the Times would't do anything so undignified as learning by doing. They also find proper sourcing a bit beneath them, but we'll save that conversation for another day.) She's getting a mixed bag of responses, of course, but one from @rkellett stands out for me: "Get the NYT to standardize, push, create hashtags on breaking news."

It made me sad at first to think that Twitter might require the services of the Times to do what it's done very well, thank you, via crowdsourcing. But then I looked at Twitter's "Trending Topics" list of the day's most popular hashtags -- the pound-sign-prefaced words that Twitterers use as keywords-- and my soul was soothed, because nowhere in the Times' reality is there room for #3wordsaftersex or #liesgirlstell or any of the other summer fun we're having on this lazy, Phil Spector-jailing Friday.

Some people wish that wasn't happening. At TechCrunch today, Robin Wauters is frankly annoyed by the silliness: "I can't help but think it's a pity," he sniffs, "that [Trending Topics] is starting to turn into the top 10 of chain letters people used to circulate through e-mail messages in the late nineties."

Oh SNAP! Twitter's acting all OLD! Only there's this, Robin: It's also what Facebook has "turned into" with the endless "What ____ Are You?" polls. And there's the calendar, which if mine is correct indicates it's summer and it's Friday afternoon and good grief why are we all sitting here in front of computers, it's unnatural, I'm bored, entertain me.

In other words, Twitter this afternoon is telling us that the trend is Goofing Off. Film at freakin' 11.

The problem is not that people are bringing down the quality of the discourse on Twitter. (And I think there is, or there can be, great quality there -- as the man said about something even more pervasive, some of it's just transcendental, some of it's just really dumb.) The problem is that who we are, today, right now, is a bunch of really bored people who don't want to talk about North Korea or the cybersecurity report or even whether Susan Boyle started cussing at someone-or-other yesterday.

In fact, Susan Boyle is a fine example of how Twitter and other realms of the ephemeral do just fine, thank you, at constructing reality. If it's silly and trivial at the moment, that's just what it is, and I will take that ebb and flow any day over the manufactured drama of TV news or the media sources that require that every day, every time slot, be a Big Damn Serious Deal.

And now a rebuttal from the reality-based community.

Hey. Twitter's fun and all, maybe even important; certainly it has the power to change the public discourse, with or without the hashtag-sheperding services of The New York Times. But before we enter the weekend all goony about this stuff, please detour to The Stranger, one of our local alt-weeklies here in Seattle, to read this week's I, Anonymous. And remember that though online reality is a valid reality, as a mode of being its limitations are damn near insurmountable. I don't care how many hashtags you use to frame it.

A three-paragraph discursion, before you leave here thinking I can't make up my mind about the Twitter. Believe it or not, I'm much less Twitter-positive than you'd think from the amount I've written about it for Betanews. I like it because it's easier than keeping up my long-comatose personal blog (since by the end of the day around here I'm frankly drained of all but a few 140-character bursts of human speech); because it's like having people to chat over the cubicle wall with without my having to work in a cubicle; because brevity sometimes breeds clarity.

On the other hand, I make a point of not including much of my personal life in my Tweetstream, because I don't believe in dragging people into my writing just because they're around. And many days it's very hard to balance the urge to fire torpedoes at whatever's on my remaining good nerve with the knowledge that many of my Twitter followers are people who know me in a "professional capacity," whatever that means for an alt-media journalist in 2009. Balance is particularly hard now that @betanews tweets include links to each writer's stream. I warned Boss Man that both politics and profanity would be unavoidable in my case, and he seemed to take it in stride, but sooner or later I expect a loud and messy collision.

And honey, wait 'til you get a load of those hashtags.

Let your geek flag fly and have a great weekend.

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