Hashtags and water coolers

My heart sank as I listened to the most recent Hypercritical. Late in the show, John Siracusa decided to follow up on some things Dan Benjamin and John Gruber had said about Twitter in The Talk Show episode from earlier in the week. He’s going to say everything I wanted to blog about, I thought. Luckily, he left a few things unsaid.

Quick recap: Gruber and Benjamin were talking about recent changes to Twitter. Dan made the point that the New New Twitter1 was trying to turn hashtags (or as Merlin would say, #hashtags) into one of the primary ways of interacting with it. This, he felt, was the path Twitter wants to take to monetize itself.

I agree with Dan. The evidence has been around for quite a while, but it’s been buried in the API as Tweet Entities. Because the page describing them keeps getting updated, I can’t tell you when tweet entities were first added to Twitter, but I think they go back to the beginning of the year, at least.

Tweet entities are items within the body of a tweet that are treated specially. User names and URLs are obvious examples. Images were added when Twitter made a deal with Photobucket to offer native photo sharing. Significantly, hashtags are the fourth type of tweet entity, which gives them first class status within the Twitter universe. Despite this status, hashtags have only been used as links to search results.

Honestly, I think it’s weird that Twitter hasn’t done more to push hashtags on us. The Trends in the sidebar aren’t restricted to hashtags, something you’d think Twitter would do to promote their use. Searches, which are related to trends, could be restricted to hashtags, too.2 The most severe restriction—one I don’t think Twitter could pull off—would be for Twitter to dole out hashtags only to those who pay for them. You could still stick an octothorp in front of any word you like, but it would only be turned into a link if Twitter had been paid.

Maybe some of these restrictions are in the offing. If so, they won’t affect me because that’s not how I use Twitter.

Which leads me to the other Talk Show topic I wanted to follow up on: Gruber’s complaint that Twitter just isn’t what it used to be. Too many people talking about stupid things, tweets that are nothing but hashtags, a public timeline that’s turned to shit—nothing like the old days.

In short, there was simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than there
On Twitter-dot


I don’t really disagree with Gruber about this. Twitter was better in the old days (although when I joined over four years ago, the public timeline was already shit). What I disagree with is Gruber’s contention that Twitter is doing things to degrade the experience. It’s Twitter’s popularity that’s degrading the experience, not anything Twitter is doing.3 You simply can’t have as many users as Twitter has without it being filled with stupidity.

But as individual users, we can keep most of the old Twitter experience. We can still follow only those people who try to be interesting and write coherently. We can shield ourselves from the lolspeakers and the incessant retweeters and hashtaggers by simply not following them.

Which is how it’s always been.

Twitter still provides the water cooler Gruber wants to hang out at, but now it has thousands of other water coolers. You just have to stay away from the ones people piss in.

  1. I’m pretty sure this is actually the New New New Twitter. I distinctly remember my wife making fun of me twice before when she got updated features ahead of me. But everyone’s settled on just two news, and who am I to rock the boat? 

  2. I suppose it could be argued that restricting searches to hashtags only would make searching useless. My counter-argument: how would you notice the difference? Searching on Twitter is already so crippled by time limitations—you can’t find anything more than a couple of weeks old—that another restriction wouldn’t reduce its value. If you cut zero in half, it’s still zero. 

  3. OK, they ruined Tweetie, but there are plenty of other Twitter clients.