What Newsweek's hashtag reveals about conversation in an evolving media environment
In 1998, People magazine did something fairly innovative for those early days of the World Wide Web: It asked its readers to vote for People.com's Most Beautiful Person of the Year. This being 1998, and People being People, the magazine probably expected that the obvious candidates -- Kate Winslet, Leonardo diCaprio -- would rise to the top. But that was before a write-in candidate emerged: Henry Joseph Nasiff, Jr., better known to the world as Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf. An occasional presence on Howard Stern's radio show, Hank soon found himself as the star of a mischievous voting campaign that spread across online message boards and mailing lists. By the time People's poll closed, Hank had received nearly a quarter of a million votes. DiCaprio had received 14,000.
I mention all that because Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf, found an analog today -- not through an ironic beauty contest, but through an ironic hashtag. #Muslimrage started, as these things tend to do, as a publicity play. Newsweek was trying to promote its new cover -- more on the cynicism of which here and here and here -- and sent out, cheerfully and chirpily, the following offer on Twitter:
The tagged reactions to Newsweek's proposal have been ... mixed. Some tweets are funny. Some are satirical. Some are cruel. But they are pretty much united in their rejection of Newsweek's premise that "Muslim rage" is something to be talked about, under the magazine's brand, on Twitter. Which is also to say: People rejected glibness. They rejected cynicism. They rejected reductive branding. And they did so, specifically, by reappropriating the hashtag Newsweek had proposed. They treated #muslimrage not in the way Newsweek had framed it, but instead as exactly what it was: a joke.