Facebook Hashtags: Are They a Distraction From the PRISM Scandal?

Facebook has announced its intention to include hashtags in its world-dominating social media feeds. Starting Wednesday, users will now be able to search the usage of certain terms or words to see what the online/ Facebook community discourse is on that topic with the click of the button. This may be a way of competing with rival social media giant Twitter, but the Wednesday release could also be a shiny distraction from the wider PRISM controversy.

The symbol “#” used to be universally known as a “pound sign.” Along came Twitter, which in less than five years, changed the recognition of that tic-tac-toe looking symbol from a phone menu utility to that most essential modifier of internet text: the hashtag. A certain word or phrase would don the # and suddenly, it was a searchable term, a buzzword, or an organizational tool.

Soon after the public took to understanding its usage, the hashtag became the #afterthought or the #underline for emphasis or the #punchline indicator. For users on Facebook, the hashtag took on this later, mutated understanding. “I’m going to eat froyo! #YUMdelicousOMG.” Now, facebookers will have to be more judicious with their hashtag. Given the more controversial recent news about Facebook, the public perception has once again made users feel they should be more judicious in general in and around Facebook.

Facebook's chipper announcement of the hashtag update came less than week after the PRISM story came out in the Guardian. Indeed, now that PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden has essentially forced the public to stop and question the outcomes of the PATRIOT Act, the spectre of non-privacy is cast over Facebook because of its supposed involvement with the PRISM surveillance program. CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg joined his frenemies in the silicon valley oligopoly to unequivocally deny “direct access” of their user’s information to the government, and did not say much more, perhaps in unified attempt to be perceived as contributing to this supposedly Big Brother-like control of information.

In an attempt to further advance government transparency, Obama invited a conversation on the subject, and, in doing so, squashed any hope of Facebook's that the inevitably negative attention would fade sooner rather than later. 

Is it a coincidence that Facebook is bringing out the hashtag at this point in time? Facebook has been rolled out "aggregate topic clusters" in 2011, with the intention of allowing users too see organized statuses on the same subject, much like Twitter's hash-tagging system. So Facebook suddenly thought the aggregate topic cluster was not enough, a full two years after they made their first move to compete with Twitter's capabilities. Were the new graph searches not a big enough update to the Facebook feed? Are they piling on good news to pull the wool over user's eyes? 

Facebook's updates are generally more of a stark contrast from its previous iterations. Years of sudden, dramatic overhauls have angered people who are slow to take to the change. The benefit of these sudden full scale makeovers and simultaneous new feature additions outweighs the temporary fury over the change: Facebook gets to innovate faster than a platform of its massive size typically does. So in effect, even if Facebook made hashtag update with no intentions of shaking off the PRISM controversy, the comparatively small, not to mention duplicitous (for twitter users) hashtag update seems strange nonetheless.