Opinion: Connecting Online
The other day, I wrote a post for the Vermont Fresh Network on hashtags. You know, hashtags, the #phrasesandwords with #nopunctuation and #nospaces you find on social media.
There had been a series of meetings about agritourism in which someone (usually multiple someones) as some point suggested that the most important thing for the future of agritourism in Vermont was a better understanding of hashtags. So I, like the food marketing expert I am (no, I’m not), took to Google to get some answers about this whole “hashtag” thing. If you too have wondered whether hashtags might be what is missing in your life, then hop on over to the VermontFresh.net blog and check it out.
This is not an op-ed to claim that hashtags are the secret to the future of agritourism or any other sector in the Vermont food and farm economy.
However, I did wonder why the sudden outcry over a simple system of tagging in social media? And here’s my thought: hashtags are at the center of the social media paradox, the paradox in which online networks allow us to be better connected (including across the rural-urban divide) and at the same time leave us feeling more isolated (as reported on by NPR, Forbes, Time. . . ).
A hashtag in its simplest form is a way of indexing social media as we go. Looking for posts about Vermont cheese? Search #vtcheese and find all the posts tagged that way. It means that you do not have to have tens of thousands of followers for your post to be found, people interested in the same topics can find you through this “index” of sorts. And you can give a shout-out to your #vtcheese loving compatriots without needing to mention individuals like you’re inviting them to a party - it’s for anyone who finds cheese compelling. This system delivers on the Internet’s promise of helping you find people who share your excitements, concerns, hobbies, cheese preferences, etc. wherever they may be.
Also, it’s crowdsourced, so power to the people.
Also also, it’s crowdsourced, so. . . .it’s confusing and some of the people feel even more left out than before, especially those born before 1980 (I was born in 1980, I can only imagine how those born in 1979 might feel) or those living in places where social connections are still more analog than digital. For example:
Before a hashtag works, you need a large group of people to start using it, which means that some tags can feel like a shout into the wilderness for quite a while.
And which tag do you use anyway? Of all the possible phrasings of the things you like. Think about it - do we mean #vtmaplesyrup, #vermontmaplesyrup, #vtmaple, #vermontmaple . . . (#vermontmaplesyrup, by the way, has the greatest usage).
Like all social media, there’s a scoreboard - in the form of followers, likes, numbers of tags. Do we care that #vtwine has 2,800 appearances while #sonomawine has 22,770, #vermontbeer has 36,000, and #roseallday has 398,200?
This can add up to feeling like losing ground faster than you gain it. Tossing around hashtags seems simple enough, but let’s say you care about the future of Vermont milk and want to show how our cows are much happier than cows from certain West Coast states. Well, #vermontmilk has appeared 40 times on Instagram, often posted by the same few accounts. You will need to convince everyone who you already know shares your perspective to take to the platform, use the tags, interact with each other and then interact with all those other people out there who we suspect would love to see more of #vermontmilk but haven’t been able to find it. Meanwhile, #roseallday fills the airwaves as if it’s no trouble at all.
Which brings us around to Thanksgiving.
Look, I see it both ways. Firstwise, I would encourage everyone to share Vermont food and farm experiences and products online, and tag them appropriately. It shows farmers we care, it shows other Vermonters interesting things in our own backyards, it shows non-Vermonters how awesome our state is. . . and it doesn’t require much social media savvy, you can have 5 followers or 50,000, it doesn’t matter.
But I can also see the charm in Vermont not being overtaken by the social media savvy. I like the idea that if I want folks to see what I’m eating for dinner, I will invite my friends over to share that dinner.
Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to practice that balance. Share photos / links / posts of what you’re making while you’re collecting ingredients and putting the meal together. Then don’t share photos of the meal - share the meal itself. Happy Thanksgiving.
(If you need some examples of common Vermont food hashtags, check out this post: Hashtags 101).