Did you tweet a photo of the supermoon last night? Perhaps you used the #supermoon hashtag, only to discover that a round red welt had affixed itself to your tweet, as ugly and unwanted as a social media zit. These are called hashflags.
Hashflags are a newish phenomenon. Twitter simply tweaks their code to append a lil' graphic of their choice to the end of a hashtag whenever someone uses it. Not all hashtags of course, only the ones it deems worthy of such treatment.
You don't have to do anything special, but since they're not actual emoji -- here's a primer on how emoji work -- you can't cut and paste the text to use them elsewhere. They're also not supported on all platforms, only on Twitter's own app for iPhone or the Twitter.com site. (That's why I have to screengrab them to show you -- they're not supported on Twitter embeds.) Hashflags also don't last forever: Twitter turns them off, when the hashtag stops trending, I guess. Also, don't be confused -- how could you be! -- hashflags are not to be confused with Twitter's custom emoji that only it supports.
So that's how hashflags work. But if you feel like they're becoming more prevalent, you're right. At first, I thought they were adorable adorable. Who can forget the day the Supreme Court ruled in favour of gay marriage and #LoveWins hearts and #Pride flags streamed through everyone's timelines -- even ones in countries not ruled by the Supreme Court:
And of course multiple pope-visit hashflags were all the rage last week.
But this weekend it started to become oppressive. My feed was already clogged with pope hashflags when supermoon hashflags started popping up (#superbloodmoon also worked). Then I noticed that there were hashflags for TV shows. And this morning, a new one, #UNGA, for the United Nations General Assembly.
Really? Here are some hashflags which are supposedly active at this moment:
You can follow @HashflagList on Twitter to stay updated on the current hashflags. A few that worked recently aren't showing up now (since the pope has left the building I think they just turned that one off) but fear not, more will be activated. THEY JUST KEEP COMING.
Like seriously, stay away from Twitter during football season:
I don't like this for several reasons. First of all, these hashflags break the beautiful text-link-image minimal flow of Twitter as it exists in its present iteration. I have no problem with emoji. I love them in fact. But when everyone starts to use the same hashtag, which is then hashflagged, the visual clutter is overwhelming. It's as bad as those horrible apps that snip quotes out of stories for you and display them as awful skeuomorphic torn notes.
Moreover, it raises some interesting problems for how you actually use Twitter. The company is deciding what popular hashtag looks like and therefore what it represents. It's revoking ownership of hashtags from the the users of its service. A hashflag is not like emoji, where a group of people decide what is in the best interest of universal communication. A hashtag is created by the people, for the people, and shouldn't be visually co-opted. Take these fairly vague terms which now belong to the NFL:
But the biggest problem with hashflags is that someone at Twitter is deciding what is important enough to get hashflagged, and in turn these topics get far more attention. I guess I am ok with #supermoon, as a cool global celestial event. Sports, ok, maybe. With TV shows, it's really starting to get murky. But #ShareaCoke. Share a Coke??? Coke gets a hashflag? Man, screw Coke.
Yep, Coke was selected as the first company to test branded hashflags, confirms a director of brand strategy at Twitter.
This is a dangerous precedent because these hashflags are now being used as advertising. The trick of visual wizardry makes people more likely to use them, and because of the image they're more likely to stick out in your feed. Yes, Twitter has ads but those are marked as such. This is much more like product placement -- how can you tell the difference?
In April I wrote about the Star Wars-themed ones which were first activated right as The Force Awakens dropped a new trailer in April. These were designed on behalf of Lucasfilm. Since then they have reappeared on special Star Wars days like #ForceFriday and I am very certain we will keep seeing them again and again. Although at first I enjoyed seeing BB-8 roll into my feed (he's cute!), I fear this is Twitter essentially setting the agenda for online conversations.
So Twitter decided for us that the new Star Wars instalment is the most important film of the year. That's a fact I personally agree with, but can I help it if maybe you are deluding yourself that it's not? Twitter also decided that goddamn Coke gets to showcase its clinking bottles filled with soda. Twitter is driving the pop culture conversation. Why #supermoon but no #PlutoFlyby? Why #VMAs but no #Emmys? Why do we need so many damn hashtags for American football???
I am not saying this because I hate anything fun and/or cute, I swear. I am saying this because I love Twitter and I think it would be better without this gaudy hashtag jewellery. Since they're not supported in Twitter's desktop app for Macs (YET), I'll stick with that until Twitter comes to its senses and gets rid of them. In the meantime, here's your regular reminder that no one should ever use hashtags. Or Twitter.