No one owns a hashtag

hashtagThe beauty of a hashtag is that no one can control it.

A hashtag is not like a marketing, media, or political message, whose creator thinks it can be created and controlled. It is not like the namespace in domains, on Facebook and Google+, or in trademarks, for anyone can use a hashtag without permission or payment. It’s not like a dictionary with one definition. It’s not like a word on an FCC list that prohibits or chills its use.

A hashtag is open and profoundly democratic. People gather around a hashtag. They salute it and spread it or ignore it and let it wither. They imbue it with their own meaning. The creator quickly and inevitably loses control of it.

That is what the #fuckyouwashington escapade has taught me: the power and importance of the hashtag as a platform. Hashtags allow us to gather around topics, events, and actions across platforms. Hashtags are in our control.

It’s quaint that some folks lobbied to get me to change the hashtag, as if I controlled it. Some scolded me for not scolding Congress or the GOP or the Democrats or the White House. But what was fascinating about the #fuckyouwashington is how it brought out users’ opinions — rather than mine — on why Washington is fucked up and by whom. Soon after the hashtag got out there, people starting tweeting “#fuckyouwashington for…”, filling in their grievances.

Humorless Washingtonians got pissed at me for supposedly maligning their fair if stifling city. How inane.

hashtagSome wanted me to clean up the hashtag because it offended them. But as I tweeted in response, #dagnabbitwashington would not have had the same impact. It was the profanity about profane politics that made it take off, I believe.

No less than John Perry Barlow (@jpbarlow) and @anonyops tried to change the hashtag to better assure it could get past filters some suspect Twitter puts on its trending topics list. “The hashtag is now #FYW,” they and others decreed. But they made the mistake of thinking they could control this any more than I could. I didn’t much want the discussion to become forked, but I didn’t have anything to say about it either.

By the way, some Twitter folks told Jeff Howe (@crowdsourcing) that Twitter doesn’t filter the Trending list for naughty words. But then, as he points out, their protests don’t explain this and why #fuckyouwashington didn’t make the list.

I don’t much care about the trending list in any case. It is a product of mass-media-think: Only the biggest win, goes that thinking. But online, even the biggest topics are small. Though I think Twitter should be transparent with its statistics, we don’t need it to be, as Topsy, Trendsmap, and Trendistic can count for us. According to, by latest count, #fuckyouwashington produced 84k tweets. In mass-media audience terms, that’s tiny. But then again, how many of those opinions would ever have made it into a letters-to-the-editor column in a newspaper? 84k opinions got expressed and seen by some untold community thanks to the coalescing power of the hashtag.

We don’t want an institution to hold our conversation hostage — not media, not Twitter. Hashtags can free us from that fence. Through discussion around hashtags, we can hear the voice of the people, unmediated.

hashtag#fuckyouwashington got some attention in media — but after the fact. Media are no longer needed to create critical mass. Indeed, appearances on CBS and NBC network news and on the sites of the Washington Post, Reuters, and even German papers didn’t cause spikes in the usage of the hashtag, which is now pretty much petered-out.

Note that well: media now follow the public conversation. That’s as it should be, according to scholar James Carey, via Jay Rosen, who explained his view: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.” That natural state of the relationship of media-to-public is made possible by the hashtag.

The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina only three years ago. So far, its power has been limited to Twitter. But I see an opportunity to expand its use and its empowerment the more it is supported on other platforms. When Google+ finally gets search and when it releases its API, it would be wonderful to see it enable users to easily enter tags and cluster conversations around them. There’s an opportunity to use tag data to learn more about the topicality of conversations and content all around the net, on Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, blogs, Flickr, YouTube, maybe Facebook. There’s our chance to limit the power of these silos.

All that from the humble hashtag.

: SEE ALSO: Adrian Holovaty’s and Chris Messina’s discussion about hashtags and Google+.

  • Stan Hogan


  • gregorylent

    hashtag as platform …

    #fuckyouwashington in particular is a readymade *politica*l platform .. i saw almost no dross, just item after item of important points.

    ideas as identity .. it’s the future

  • The primary reason I liked #FYW better than #FuckYouWashington is that it took up fewer characters. When you’ve only got 140, that matters …

  • tomcat

    I’m not very well versed in computers. How can I tell thru the hashtag (?) the a…holes in Washington, especially the right-wing no-sayers how I feel about their dragging asses on our homemade disaster? Thank you

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    • Came here cuz looking for the profane Jeff – prurient, i know: guilty. But I think what was profane, isn’t anymore – at least given the level of the bar raised by those currently exercising power – #fuckyouwashington understates it.

      But reading this: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

      Really? Or is my irony meter need a battery?

      • That’s the way it *should* be. Sadly, no, that is not the way it is. But the internet lets us right that.

  • Great post.

    Hashtags are the brands of the future. As an erstwhile brand identity professional of 20 years standing I genuinely believe that.

    They’ll be the brands of the future because they’re the things people will convene around… not because they have to, but because they want to.

  • Chas C-Q

    What Lileks said.

    My take is that this like so many polls (none of which really matter, aside from the one in November 2012), which aggregate numbers attached to simple point-of-view statements, and gloss over the fact that the comments of individuals in these POV-sharer groups are all over the map.

    So, what does it mean that X members of the Green Party are fed up with “Washington” (whatever one means by that) to the same degree as Y members of the Tea Parties? It’s not exactly a Kumbaya moment. I doubt that any movement or solution is likely to come out of it.

    It is as fatuous in the end as the various horserace-handicapping polls that the mainstream media feed on every day.

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  • RJ

    Just what we don’t need in this society: more crudity.

    • No, honesty. Bluntness. Directness. No more bullshit.

  • Hafidz

    Dear Mr. Jarvis…

    I think it is good to see, that the people America seem to finally wake up from a long slumber.
    For many years now the US of A have been hiding behind their policy of the world’s “big brother”, who must tell everyone else what they are doing wrong. Sometimes even with the force of weapons. But your grandmasters obviously were so busy telling everybody else off, that they completely forgot to take care of their own home. America used to be the land of my dreams – superior in every way. But now you,re only leading the sad statistics:

    highest expenditure for military
    highest unemployment rate in a 1st world country
    highest debts
    practically no social security
    amongst the highest crime rates

    And all that by leaching out the hard working and honest man.
    There is definitely no need for you to apologize for “fuckyouwashington” – on the contrary – you should add on: “fuckyouwallstreet”, because these bastards have been selling your country out all the time…

    Kindest regards,


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  • I’m not very well versed in computers. How can I tell thru the hashtag (?) the a…holes in Washington, especially the right-wing no-sayers how I feel about their dragging asses on our homemade disaster? Thank you

  • The #fuckyouwashington thing was my first real experience in using and dealing with hashtags on a wider scale. I can definitely see what you mean. I can see much more use of that in the future, to potentially great effect. One of my first thoughts was, “I wonder if this translates to any other platforms?”

  • I still can’t over the fact that people were actually offended.

    It makes me think of a saying, “Only those who wish to be offended, will be offended.” Or something in that line of thinking. Being offended is a choice you make.

    On hashtags: I like their potential, but I can’t keep up with most of them. That is most likely more to do with my approach than anything to do with the hashtag system itself.

    It’s an interesting phenomenon to watch.

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  • Great article! Great Hashtag ;-)

    I´m from Germany and while I follow the dept development of the US and how the rating agencies react, this “side-effect” of media catching a real glimpse of what the public thinks is awesome.
    Your hashtag even got mentioned on german media (last two paragraphs). And of course I looked it up on twitter.

    In European countries the people mostly demonstrate (I think more often than in the US), but the US citizens are way better in using modern communication options like Twitter. We really need to catch up.

    Great work professor and those that picked it up! Thank you.

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  • John Pemble

    Why is a journalism professor courting political decisions with activism? I don’t care what you are saying but since you teach people how to be news reporters I believe what you are doing is inappropriate and unethical with the title you hold.

    • Doctor Who

      It would be more accurate to call Jeff Jarvis a journalism “educator” at CUNY. His physical appearance along with the title “professor” is would lead one to believe that he has the degrees and many years of teaching experience you would think. In fact, Professor Jarvis only has a Bachelor’s degree and has been teaching for just a few years (even though he got almost instant tenure).

      It is very insulting disingenuous for him to casually through around the title of professor. It says a lot about his character. He is really a well-connected ex-media executive who got a cushy gig as an educator. He shouldn’t really be going around calling himself a professor. I really do wonder what the other professors at CUNY think of that.

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  • Hashtags are great. Obscene hashtags are maddening to me. There is no ground to be gained by resorting to cheap swearwords that offend many and exasperate others who want to vent similar views but without resorting to such terms. Jeff told me: ‘Chill.’ In this ‘Blame Society’ of ours, do we see who can swear the loudest? Totally, truly sad. Counter-productive, too.

  • Andrew Davies

    Great job spreading the blame around on that debt “crisis” thing. Guess you must be happy now…

  • Cory Doctorow wrote a great post over on Boing Boing about Fuck and the Law. It also references a paper written by Christopher Fairman at Ohio State regarding the effects of using the word in various contexts. I was not offended but I hope that some of the politicians that read the twitter posts were. That was certainly my intent when I posted using the hashtag.

  • It’s amazing the power a simple hashtag can have. Great article. Social networks show so much potential in helping spark change. Real voices en masse can be heard for the first time. The gov’t needs to pay attention to Twitter, as I’m sure they already do. Twitter can mobolize people quicker than anything else in the history of ever. It’s amazing.

  • I think it is good to see, that the people America seem to finally wake up from a long slumber.
    For many years now the US of A have been hiding behind their policy of the world’s “big brother”,

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  • Also we’re going to have pay attention the @mentions not just a #

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  • Great post! But I would almost say that the #hashtag is not so much democratic (because it implies that a minority point of view is dismissed as in any democratic process), but it is closer to the panarchist view where different points of view about a particular hashtag may turn to different variations of this.

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  • Yes hashtags are a form of intellectual property that can’t be owned. Once they are in the public domain then they are anyones. We always apologise for dumping our hashtags or webpage on pages like this, by adding:

    It makes hashtag dumping a little more acceptable

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