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.
It's worth scrolling through the thousands of #muslimrage tweets (and, relatedly, the satirical #muslimrouge and #muslimrave tags that have risen up along with them). It's worth marveling at how prismatic they are in their tone and intent. The hashtag now includes tweets from people who seem to be Muslim. It includes tweets from people who don't seem to be Muslim. It includes tweets from people who seem to be making fun of Muslims. It includes tweets from people who make fun of the people making fun of Muslims. The hashtag, as hashtags are wont to do, has taken on an organic life of its own, independent of its originator. (To wit: Max Read's gloriously satirical take.) The whole idea of "Muslim rage" -- as an idea as well as a hashtag -- is being flipped on its head.
Which brings us back to Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf. In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky explains what Hank can teach us about our ever-more-participatory media: "If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it," Shirky writes. On the other hand: "[I]f you only pretend to offer an outlet for those motivations, while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt."
That's exactly what happened here. Newsweek underestimated both its audience and, with them, itself. While it may still be true that a good magazine -- just as a good newspaper -- is a nation talking to itself, the standards for that conversation have risen considerably since people have been able to talk to each other on their own. Conversation can no longer exist for conversation's sake alone -- which is also to say that people understand, almost intuitively, the difference between being inspired and being trolled. Newsweek didn't give any indication that its incitement to discussion was motivated by a desire for anything beyond pageviews and newsstand sales. So its audience met it where it was, in that glib place of low expectations. But they turned the magazine's own cynicism into something better -- something funny and meaningful and insightful and real. They turned Newsweek's "scripted experience" into something they wrote on their own.