Articles on Twitter hashtags seem to be popping up in my news feeds more frequently. First, on Friday, The New York Times published an article titled, "Twitter’s Secret Handshake." Or, as it’s put in the article’s page title, “Hashtags, a New Way for Tweets.”
Either way, it’s awkward. And that was exactly the impression that stayed with me as I read the article. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt this way, but I decided it was because it was one of those NYT style pieces that misses the mark by describing the “latest trend” in overwrought detail, about three years too late.
But then this morning, I read another piece on hashtags: Brian Solis’ post, “The Hashtag Economy.” I found myself very interested in this article, pulled in by the firsthand account of when hashtags were suggested as a way to organize topics on Twitter, engaged in the implications of the hashtag. Why was I nodding along as I read Solis’ article, when I had cringed while reading the NYT’s coverage of the same topic?
So I went back and read the NYT article one more time and finally put my finger on why it had made me uncomfortable: audience.
Solis’ audience is a somewhat niche group that’s social media savvy. But NYT’s audience is a mixed bag when it comes to social media expertise (or lack thereof). So while Solis could dive right into the implications of hashtags, the NYT reporter got bogged down by explanations of how tweeting works, for those readers who aren’t heavy Twitter users. There were cultural insights between the tactical explanations, but they were overshadowed. The result was that I walked away from the NYT article feeling like they had treaded into a weird “how to tweet using hashtags” territory, while Solis’ analysis kept me interested and engaged.
Which leaves me thinking that traditional media — or any outlet with a general interest audience — is damned if they do, damned if they don’t when it comes to covering social media. If they don’t, they look like they’re ignoring important changes in how people communicate. But if they do, they’ll be stuck perpetually explaining the mechanics of social media platforms to cover their bases with their vast, diverse audiences — instead of digging into the topic and its implications.