Can you have a conversation on Twitter? A good one, that is—one that’s interesting, funny, enlightening, charming, maybe even important? The punditocracy doesn’t think so. Just the other day, Peggy Noonan said on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” that she was anxious about whether Paul Ryan would be able to convey his ideas in a “busy, bouncy, shallow, silly, electric popping, tweeting” political environment.
We’re going to try to prove this notion—that social media is an apocalyptically frivolous place—wrong. Today, Yahoo News unveils #HashOut, our new “talk show”/Twitter game. We’ve assembled a panel of nearly 40 people, who have demonstrated skill and influence in communicating in 140-character bursts. ( Well, my old boss Michael Kinsley hardly uses the service, but he’s been terrific in every emerging medium—from cable news to online magazines—to which he has applied himself, so we’re drafting him into the Twitterati.) I’d start praising individual members, but I don’t want to leave anyone out. Suffice it to say we have magazine editors, novelists, TV anchors, comedians, political professionals and more.
Playing #HashOut is simple: Each weekday morning, we’ll tweet a question from @YahooNews, using the hashtag #HashOut. At least seven members of the #HashOut panel (different people are assigned for different days) will tweet their answers using the same hashtag, and hopefully the rest of the Twitterverse—this means you—will play, too. The next morning, we’ll put our three favorite answers—they could come from the panel or from the peanut gallery—up for a vote on Yahoo News at news.yahoo.com/hashout. The author of the winning tweet will not receive any lovely parting gifts. But a good time will be had by all.
What’s the point of this experiment? The history of journalism on the Internet (with apologies for sounding portentous) is the history of adapting our trade to the new ways of talking that are created by new technologies. Back when this site was called David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web, the trick was exploiting the central technology of the web—the link. Building off that, the first political bloggers, from Glenn Reynolds to Mickey Kaus to Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan, pioneered a new kind of writing that is a more focused and idiosyncratic manifestation of David Filo and Jerry Yang’s discovery, that the curatorial power of links lets you publish everything without really publishing anything.
Links, e-mail, iPods—new digital technologies have invariably led to new ways to talk about the news. Well, now we want to get inside your Twitter. While Twitter has been a remarkable tool for the publication and curation of eyewitness reports—from places as far afield as Egypt and Pakistan to Anthony Weiner’s private photo collection—no one has, to our knowledge, successfully harnessed the tweetstorm for the purposes of convening an ongoing conversation, in our new 140-character vernacular, about news, politics and culture. #HashOut isn’t trying to use Twitter to find sources or to promote the newest articles on Yahoo! We just want to provoke people into being interesting about the news. Charlie Rose believes in tables. We believe in tweets.
So yes, we think it’s possible to have a good conversation on Twitter, among our panelists and with the public. And unlike the hosts of a radio call-in show, we won’t have to answer your phone call in order for you to be heard. Just tweet your answer with the hashtag #HashOut and everyone will be able to see it. Also, unlike a call-in show, you can do this on your own time, rather than during a predetermined hour of the day.
We expect to roll out enhancements and changes to #HashOut in the coming months, including #HashOut Live, a daily video series during the Republican and Democratic conventions hosted by #HashOut panelist Baratunde Thurston. But for now, let’s just ask the first question:
Last week, a Moscow judge sentenced a punk band to two years in prison. What musical act would you send to lockup, and why? Join the #HashOut!
If you think that’s a frivolous question, well, it’s not apocalyptically frivolous. And don’t you want to know what Paul Ryan’s answer would be? @PaulRyanVP, we’re waiting.
Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor of Yahoo! News.