Through late Wednesday, the hashtag had been used some 13,800 times, peaking at 45 tweets per minute, says Gilad Lotan of the social media analysis company SocialFlow. "That's not bad."
Once the Dewey Decimal system of Twitter, hashtags are being embraced by the political class as an ideal way to snark.
It wasn't always so. In 2007, digital advocate Chris Messina floated the idea of using the pound symbol, or hash, as a way of tying together ideas and conversations on the network. Twitter eventually baked the tag into the product.
But it wasn't new. The hashtag was a carryover from the old days of Internet Relay Chat, when the hash sign -- # -- was the way you joined channels, giving entry to anyone into a world where text and ideas reigned. (The "@" sign used to name people on Twitter, points out Lotan, is another IRC convention.) As technology goes, the hashtag is dead simple: type a hashtag, and, lo and behold, it exists. Observers cite the 2009 Iranian elections (#IranElection) as the moment the tool really took hold in the political realm. Closer to home, the taxonomic application found high-profile usage when the White House encouraged people to use #immigration to discuss a major Obama immigration speech and #AskObama to group together questions for the president for an online forum hosted by Twitter's Jack Dorsey.
But having pointed fun with the hashtag is newer. "Until a couple years ago, anytime you used a hashtag, it was to group a conversation," says Democratic consultant Matt Ortega, who is known in political circles as a leading purveyor of the comedic arts. "But within the last year and a half or so, it's become a way to kind of use a subliminal message in a larger tweet." The New Yorker's Susan Orlean describes the result as sounding "like it's being muttered into a handkerchief." Says Ortega, "The way I and a lot of others approach it is the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert school of pushing a political angle or thoughtful comment using humor, like #HermanCainPizzaJams or #HipHopBBQActs" -- the points there being that, with the former, Cain is an unserious political candidate for signing a pizza song to the tune of "Imagine" and, with the latter, that FoxNation is dense on racial matters for using that phrase to describe a birthday gathering for Obama that featured black celebrities. Another example: "#ImRunningForOfficeForPetesSake" -- Mitt Romney's explanation for why his landscaping company couldn't hire illegal immigrants -- "feeds into the meme that he's inauthentic," says Ortega. "The best ones take a poignant political point and match it with humor."
Hashtags have become a way for politicians to, as Rick Perry might say, "bump" ideas. (That cringe-worthy debate exchange prompted its own warning hashtag: #cootiesarereal.) "Democrats follow Republicans, and Republicans follow Democrats," observes one Democratic congressional aide. "We're using the medium to push back, because members don't like to see things like [the jobs bill fight] go unchallenged." Recently, Hill Republicans and Democrats engaged in a low-grade fight over #Forgotten15 and #Faux15, two takes on fifteen bills that Republicans say are jobs plans in stalled the Senate and Democrats dismiss as job killers. There was even a meta aspect: "When it comes to #HashtagsArentAJobsBill," says the aide, "the frustration is that, as great as Twitter is, hashtags aren't going to help the unemployed."