I was interviewed on Wednesday for a show the Austrian radio station ORF1. The interviewer asked me to comment on a story in the Austrian news, about that country’s Foreign Minister’s campaign -#Stolzdrauf (translated #ProudOfIt). The aim of the campaign was to promote the idea that, regardless of birth place, residents of Austria are proud of their Austria. This is a familiar approach at the city level – we are proud to be Londoners, or Rotterdamers; the aim of this hashtag was to encourage people to tweet reasons why they are proud of Austria. It is easy to see why the advisors thought it a good idea – it encourages users to contribute to a conversation. One of the first ever such hashtag campaigns – Audi’s #ProgressIs, launched during the 2011 Superbowl Ad break – revealed to marketeers that choosing the right hashtag and launching it at the right time can promote engagement and, in turn, awareness. #ProudOfIt evokes something of the MacDonald’s ‘LovinIt’ campaign, and seeks to repeat successful hashtags like #MakeitCount (Nike), #CaptureEuphoria (Ben and Jerry’s ice cream), or #LiveforNow (Pepsi). Note that these do not include the name of the sponsor – rather they embody a positive sounding slogan that hopes to encourage related content.
Yet organisations have found that the creation of such hashtags also opens up a space for critique and ridicule. #WaitroseReasons, #McDStories and #QuantasLuxury will forever be early precedents of bashtagging or crash tagging. More recently the New York Police Department found that their #MyNYPD tag was not used as intended but instead provided a high profile platform for pictures of police brutality. You can probably guess what happened with #Stolzdrauf (#ProudOfIt): It sparked high volume of tweets that both engaged ridiculed the hashtag in equal measure.
If crashtagging is crashing and subverting a hashtag, then Fashtagging (work with me on this…) is fashioning a hashtag following an event or activity with the principal aim of creating a space for critique or ridcule. The exemplar here should be of interest to the Austrian Foreign Minister and his social media team: in summer 2014, the then British Secretary for State for Education, Michael Gove, advocated a need to celebrate British Values, and the #BritishValues tag was born. If Twitter is as liberal and lefty as some research purports then any campaign with so much as a whiff of nationalist pride will be met with the full force of tweets such as Stuart Brown’s: #BritishValues “Being wary of foreigners while having a Belgian beer with an Indian curry in your Spanish villa wearing Indonesian clothes.” Perhaps the Austrian advisers were unaware of the #BritishValues fiasco , or saw that Cameron reignited the idea of Britain as a place that he was “proud to call home” in his party speech in September 2014, despite blogs pointing out the mocking responses to Gove.
As Twitter matures, the use of hashtags, although tempting, is risky. For there is another kind of hashtag abuse that differs from crashing, bashing or fashing, and that is plain, simple ignorance. For every notorious hashtag there are 10 others that are launched, propagated and quietly dropped. As one Viennese student said during a seminar last week, “if your campaign fails you need to find a better campaign manager”. Maybe. Or perhaps failure is to be expected. The ease with which hashtag campaigns can be conceived and attempted means that, if it fails early, it fails cheaply (both in terms of cost and reputation) and that is better than sparking widespread media controversy. Or perhaps sparking conversation of this kind is a responsibility of policy makers in a digital age. We need to remember that social media campaigns are about more than buying votes or selling ice cream and fizzy drinks. This is hashtag politics.
Or if your German is okay listen to the interview here