The Hashtag Game: Waste of Time or Art Form?

Dismiss the call/response form of tweeting if you will, but the entertaining distraction can yield some comic gems

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Illustration by Don Bishop / Getty Images

Twitter users both famous and obscure, are often (and often unfairly) derided for insipid status updates and obvious remarks. I’ve also seen dismissive remarks about Tweeters who participate in hashtag games. I even read one article in which the author stated that he immediately unfollows anyone he catches taking part in them. Of all the reasons to unfollow people, I can’t think of a worse one.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a hashtag game is a call/response form of tweeting wherein a user will post some kind of gag within a tightly defined genre, usually some kind of pun-based mashup of two very different things, like #UpdatedTVShows or #BreakfastFilms. And then anyone who sees it and wants to join in does so, posting things like “Marx & Recreation” or “Toastbusters,” respectively. No need to even take turns. Honestly, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

I freely admit that one’s enjoyment of hashtag games is going to be largely dependent on whom one follows. My feed, stuffed with comedians, humor writers and clever colleagues lights up when a good hashtag game comes along. These people know what they’re doing. For me, it’s like a call to arms, a signal to drop the task at hand and get involved. If I’m doing it right, I soon know it because everyone’s happy to retweet their favorites to their followers while giving the author credit.

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It’s possible that my enjoyment of hashtag games has something to do with the way I use Twitter. For me, it’s less about social and professional networking or breaking news and more about having a form of micro-entertainment that allows me to kill a few seconds while waiting for an hourglass on my work screen to go away. As a result, my timeline has evolved into a tailor-made app for following people who make me laugh.

Yes, plenty of hashtag game entries are lame, unimaginative, or repetitive, if you watch the Twitter-wide feed in real time. For instance, while #LessInterestingBooks led to plenty of genius posts like “Waldo’s Right Here” and “Harry Potter and the Order of Takeout,” the most frequent entry was a simple “Twilight,” which was only funny the first dozen or so times. But if one is following the right people, hashtag games lead not to what certain members of my circle dismiss as a #dadjoke, but to a rapidly growing collection of minor comic gems. And the process that creates them is like a high-speed, competitive yet collaborative comedy writing drill. It’s a great way to keep one’s wits sharp, like Sudoku for the funny bone.

And of course, just like the rest of Twitter, there are no barriers to entry. The only trick is catching onto them early in their life cycle, because they tend to run their course in just a few hours or less. The best time to play (or start) one is weekday afternoons, about the time certain people turn to Twitter when others are turning to 5-Hour Energy. There’s no one source for getting in right at the start, but NPR commentator John Moe (@johnmoe) and comedian Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) are frequent initiators (although one should be warned that Oswalt’s are not always safe for work).

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And avoid the obvious. The most successful (read: retweeted) hashtag entries are the ones that come at the concept from an unexpected angle, work on more than one level and take a second or two for the reader to get. But not more than a second or two. It’s still Twitter, after all. Just be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice the next time you spot a tweet that ends in something like #RejectedTIMEIdeasArticles.