In case you don't yet know about hashtags (or about Twitter, which is another matter all together), these are the cues that people posting on Twitter add to their post, searchable words preceded by the # symbol. These #words help provide a kind of subject matter organization to the rough and tumble conversation on Twitter, as they create a lexicon of popular subjects that people regularly search for.
As Twitter has grown, it's also become a platform adopted by both liberals and conservatives, and just as in the offline world, these two groups have brought their vastly different cultures and concerns to the Twitter environment. As a way of seeking out each other, both have evolved their own hashtags: #tcot (for "Top Conservatives on Twitter) for the gun-totting, god-fearing right-leaning camp, and #topprog (for "Top Progressives") for the Obama loving crowd.
Now, add into the mix the latest Tweetdeck update (Tweetdeck is one of the many tools that help you organize your responses - or tweets - on Twitter), which automatically copies any hashtags in a post anytime you reply, and one can easily find oneself astray in the "enemy" camp. Post a complement about Obama with a #tcot hashtag or a gay put-down to #topprog and you could soon find yourself flooded with angry replies and in a world of hurt.
Yet one of the promises of a social network like Twitter is the opportunity to allow an exchange of thoughts and ideas between people of all views. And just because someone posts 140 characters supporting Israel doesn't mean they are a tcot (or just because they voted for Obama they may not be a topprog). Politics is sometimes more complex than 140 characters makes it seem. Yet hashtags like #tcot and #topprog seem to be reinforcing a kind of strict orthodoxy of thought on both sides, with no room for discussion let along subtly of view.
Don't get me wrong. I think the #tcot and #topprog hashtags have been a great service. They've helped to organize communities amongst the chaos of Twitter. They've helped people find followers they can commiserate with. And they are useful for speading the word, sharing information, and rallying the troops. There are just times, however, when you want a broader philosophical discussion. And as I've found out, posting to both #tcot and #topprog at the same time is NOT the way to make new friends.
Therefore, a fellow Twitterer - http://twitter.com/txvoodoo - and I have come up with a proposal to create a new hashtag: #bipart. To be used by #tcots, #topprogs, and completely unpolitical people of all kinds who want to discuss political issues not with true believers only, and not with the intention of offending others, but with idea of challenging people of all opinions to participate in the exchange of ideas and challenges to orthodoxies or party platforms.
For if we are only going to use Twitter to force each other into politically correct corners, what good is it? I want a Twitter culture that is curious about debate, able to take criticism, and not going to run away at the first voice of a dissenting opinion.
I know, I know - as Obama has found, bi-partisanship is easier said than done. And each of us ultimately has their own point of view, and we aren't giving that up easily. Still - if you have the stomach and the nerve, I challenge you to use the #bipart tag, and speak to people on the other "side."
(Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/martinschecter)