Even the Most Well-Intentioned Hashtags (#YesAllHashtags) Quickly Devolve Into Kitsch

Got anything else to say about yourself, Jack?


A Twitter bio is an opportunity to inform and play. As it does with tweets themselves, the site caps bios at 140 characters, but the platform’s users still manage to cram a great deal of personality into that compact space. Donald Trump’s fans frequently nod to their even less savory political beliefs, for instance. Freelance journalists, meanwhile, will often name publications that they’ve written for, both to brag and to promote their own availability.

And then there’s Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. For months now, Dorsey’s bio has simply read “#withMalala!” That hashtag is a reference to a social media drive inspired by Malala Yousafazi, the teenage human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. An advocacy campaign for an advocacy campaign, #withMalala “is a global digital art project” supported by the Malala Fund in which users submit images to a gallery that “support[s] Malala’s global campaign to guarantee 12 years of free, quality, and safe education to millions of girls worldwide.” None of this information appears in Dorsey’s bio—the hashtag stands alone.

Dorsey probably needs no introduction on the site, but the brevity of this message is nevertheless odd. Composing a telling Twitter bio is like choosing the perfect Facebook photo: If you don’t bother to write one, you’d better be cool enough to pull it off. Some get away with an icily brief self-description (say “writer,” with the first letter pointedly lower case) while others are just badass enough to manage no bio at all. Dorsey’s enthusiastic proclamation, by contrast, is just kind of dorky.

The #withMalala campaign has a worthy goal, of course, whatever one might say about the project’s execution. It’s also feels authentic to Dorsey, who’s marched in protests and otherwise trumpeted his political commitments. Though some have dismissed hashtag activism as mere virtue signaling, this message may well be very real, and very deeply felt, for Dorsey. But it’s still tempting to make fun of him for it because the way he’s conveying that message still feels so silly—and because that silliness gets at the nature of the modern internet.

By design, hashtags are concessions to the excess of our technological present, an excess embodied more fully by Twitter than virtually any other online destination. The site’s users compose and send thousands of messages per second. Words pile up too fast to be read, meaning that something always gets lost: Follow too many accounts, and your feed will devolve into chaos. But if you try to dive into the larger conversation, you’ll soon be lost, unable to discern who’s speaking, and what they’re speaking about.

Over the years, Twitter has deployed a number of features to help users sort through its morass of content. In late 2015, it debuted Moments, curated narratives that help explain what users are discussing on the site, and in 2016 it started organizing users’ timelines algorithmically. While both of these much mocked and maligned features are better than most acknowledge, neither is quite as functional as a simple hashtag, which allows you to see at a glance everyone what everyone’s saying about a particular topic.

Precisely insofar as they pare away at our information overload, hashtags also tacitly acknowledge that communication is ephemeral on the internet. They help direct our attention in the flux of our online experiences. Sometimes they can broaden your field of view—like many others, I use them to see what other fans are saying during live television broadcasts, for example—but they’re still tied to the immediacy of perception itself.

It’s this capacity of the hashtag that makes Dorsey’s bio—and other lingering messages like it—so dopey. Even the best hashtags work because they’re tied to the specificity of an event; urgency makes them effective. Later, when we’ve had the opportunity to dig through the rubble of experience, we no longer need them quite so much. With the distance of retrospection, even the most useful hashtags feel like so much kitsch. While the Mala Fund describes the still in-progress #withMalala as “a 12-month social action and advocacy campaign,” in hashtag form it forever feels like yesterday’s news.

Someone who continues to use a hashtag that has outlived its moment is like a friend who insists on recounting his fast-fading dreams. It represents a fundamental failure to read the room—or, as the case may be, how the internet works. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the Malala Fund’s campaign, and there’s arguably something noble about trumpeting its importance. But hashtags are the wrong way to promote such a program, since they make it feel like a project of merely temporary significance.

There’s a certain irony to seeing Dorsey fall into this trap, not least of all because he helped engineer the snare. Twitter succeeds—to the extent that it does—by embracing the internet’s culture of impermanence. Dorsey looks silly because he doesn’t grasp the way his own platform works. Of course, Dorsey isn’t the only public figure with politicized hashtags in place of a proper bio. There’s also Donald Trump, who allows himself two: #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and #Trump2016. Let us hope that they too soon feel like so much forgotten internet fluff.