A #hashtag that isn't disposable garbage

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Rob Walker
Yahoo! News

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

As you’ve heard by now, Facebook is enabling the use of hashtags — the #device for topic-tracking long familiar to users of Twitter.

I can’t get excited about yet another way to chime in about the NBA Finals or bicker about the NSA in real time, but the #overkill coverage is a great excuse to sing the praises of a very clever, and genuinely productive, use of hashtags over on Instagram that I learned of recently via the photo site PetaPixel. The hashtag is #litterati, and its goal is to clean up the physical world.

The project is the brainchild of Jeff Kirschner, an entrepreneur in Oakland. As he explains in this brief video overview, he was out walking with his children when his young daughter pointed out some trash that “doesn’t go there.” Increasingly bugged by the amount of litter in the supposedly eco-conscious Bay Area, he dreamed up a distinctly West-Coast-techie scheme.

The idea is to photograph a piece of litter, post your image to Instagram with the hashtag #litterati — and then, of course, dispose of that garbage properly. This strikes me as a cunning subversion of certain Instagrammers’ notorious penchant for documenting the mundane: If it’s a good idea to share an image of your brunch, why not share an image of street detritus? The implication that you’ve just done a good deed by ridding the public sphere of Instagrammed trash adds to the appeal; and the fact is, trash can be actually a more interesting photo subject than eggs benedict. As of today, the number of #Litterati photos totals 10,647 — a lot of garbage!

In addition to pushing the hashtag and starting a dedicated @Litterati Instagram account, Kirschner set up Litterati.org, which collects tagged images and exploits the data offered by participating Instagrammers in several ways: There’s a map drawing on the relevant geotags, and a stats page that totals up contributions by state, country and “most commonly found items.” Cigarettes and plastic top the latter chart, but it’s notable that this list includes several brand-specific listings: Starbucks, Marlboro, McDonalds, Snickers, Coke, etc. Kirschner sees potential to use this crowd-found data to start conversations with local governments and companies, about everything from the distribution of trash cans to improved packaging, on the road to a “a litter-free planet.”

Okay, so a litter-free planet is probably not going to happen. But give #litterati its due. There’s no shortage of frivolity, silliness, and trivia in social media — including nonstop participatory Twitter hashtag diversions like #MyFirstTimeBeingHigh, or whatever similar trope is trending when you read this. But after all, as Alexis Madrigal reminded readers of TheAtlantic.com, the hashtag was not invented by a tech company, it was invented by a Twitter user. And like any other digital tool, its ours to do with what we wish.

If that means ridiculous social media fads, fine. But if, every so often, it means something curiously fun and genuinely positive, then that deserves respect, and support. A different kind of writer might even call @Litterati an example of #hashtagtivism. Obviously I would never do that, but I’d love to see more projects like this — whatever you want to call them. So follow @Litterati on Instagram, or #litterati-tag your own Instagram pictures of garbage you cleaned up and watch them emerge in the “digital landfill” on Litterati.org.