The #NASCAR Branded Hashtag Page — WTF, Twitter?

I love Twitter, the platform.  But Twitter, the company, has often puzzled me.  And I have often felt that Twitter the company is an organization that doesn’t really understand its own product.

The #NASCAR Branded Hashtag page is just the latest evidence that Twitter often completely misses the point of what it has built.  It takes a platform that has totally revolutionized the way media works, and uses it to create something resembling a portal page from the 90’s, as though the app- and mobile-based web experience had never happened.  The experience fails to address a clear user need or interest, or at least to explain what it’s doing to those users who might be interested.  What’s worse, it messes with the hashtag, in a way that is just plain wrong.

Amazingly, I haven’t seen a single article or blog post that has not been positive on the #NASCAR branded hashtag page experiment.  TechCrunch calls them “brilliant.”  AdAge writes that Twitter is sending the message “that hashtags can potentially be a useful branding tool and not merely a pop-culture phenomenon”  (WTF, AdAge? #jan25 was not a “pop-culture phenomenon.”)  GigaOm warns traditional media companies that they should be shaking in their boots.  I say that other media and technology companies should be celebrating the fact that Twitter is leaving the field wide open for someone to do community-driven media engagement right.

And that’s the worst part about this:  the concept of a branded hashtag page — which Twitter says consists of “a combination of algorithms and curation [that] will surface the most interesting Tweets” — pollutes the concept of the hashtag as a community-driven conversation, one of the best and most beloved features of the Twitter platform.  By turning the hashtag into nothing more than a branded content portal, with content curated by anonymous Twitter employees, Twitter is missing the point.  And by using the hashtag to talk AT their customers, instead of WITH their customers, brands are missing a huge opportunity.

The Hashtag Doesn’t Belong To Twitter – or the Brand.  It Belongs To Us.

The Twitter hashtag was first suggested by Twitter user @chrismessina on August 23, 2007.  The idea was that the # symbol would demarcate metadata, rather than the content itself.  Messina even pitched the concept to Twitter, but was rejected.  It wasn’t until 2009, that Twitter the company supported hashtags, and the ability to click on a hashtag to generate a search results page.  (More hashtag history in this GigaOm article from Liz Gannes.)

[tweet https://twitter.com/chrismessina/status/223115412]

Today hashtags are used by users of Twitter (and some other platforms) to create instant realtime conversations around events, power Twitter chats, stay in touch with communities, debate current events, discuss brands or products, and start revolutions.  Brands are using them to create games, to run contests, or to run awareness-building campaigns.

Hashtags work, and they are powerful tools, because anyone can create a hashtag, and anyone can use it.

And when you search for a hashtag on Twitter, you should be able to get a page of all tweets related to that hashtag.

But now, when I entered #nascar in the search box on Twitter.com today, here’s what I get:

Notice something?  Here’s a #hint.  That’s right: the first two tweets on that fancy branded hashtag page don’t actually have a #NASCAR hashtag!

WTF, Twitter?

“With twitter.com/#NASCAR, you’ll discover the best Tweets, photos and perspectives from NASCAR drivers and their families, crews, commentators, celebrities and fans – all in a single timeline,” chirps the Twitter blog post introducing the concept of hashtag pages.

You know what?  When I use or search for the #NASCAR hashtag, I don’t really want to see what a celebrity has to say.  I want to know what people who are deliberately contributing to the #NASCAR conversation have to say.

Because that’s what a hashtag is: a conversation.

“What does it mean then when the conversation itself is the canvas?” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo asked in Cannes this week.

The branded hashtag page is the polar opposite of this vision.  There’s no attempt to facilitate conversation, the way that tools like Tweetchat or SeeSaw do.  There’s no explanation on the #NASCAR branded page of why I’m seeing tweets that don’t include the hashtag, or any information about how the tweets that are displayed were selected.

There’s no way of knowing, until I publish and tweet this post, whether the title of this article will be displayed in the stream when it is tweeted out.

“If I click the #nascar tag, I want to see what people are tweeting about #nascar, not a bunch of what are essentially sponsored posts. What happens when it’s #google or #apple or a hashtag you regularly use?” Rav Casley Gera points out in a comment on The Verge.

I’m all for successful products making money. But if Twitter alienates its users or makes its product less useful, it won’t be very successful in the long run.

What do you think? Am I over-reacting?

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