President Obama's #My2K tweet

President Obama set off a Twitter firefight on Wednesday with this #My2K hashtag (Twitter / November 30, 2012)

From #SaveBigBird and #womeninbinders, to #Lauerfail and #DrunkDianeSawyer, it seems like we are awash in stories with hashtags these days --stories about the 140-character wonders of Twitter and their impact on media and politics.

And while there is no shortage of reporting on the latest record number of tweets on any given topic, it feels like the faster the stories about social media come, the further we fall behind the curve of understanding how they are shaping the culture or what they might be trying to tell us about ourselves. We chronicle and marvel at the numbers, but maybe we are missing the meanings of this latest development in media consciousness.

Last week, President Barack Obama, who wiped the floor with GOP challenger Mitt Romney in social media during the election, raised his game to a new level when he took to Twitter in his fight with conservatives in Congress over what to about the so-called fiscal cliff. Just as Team Obama effectively used social media to get re-elected, he is now trying to use it to govern -- right down to the level of creating and trying to drive folks to hashtags.

"Call your members of Congress. Write them an email. Tweet it using the hashtag #My2K," Obama said in one of his own tweets.

And his budget-battle message -- that it will cost middle-class families more than $2,000 each a year if the Bush-era tax cuts are not extended -- launched an instant Twitter firefight that included some surprisingly effective pushback from the right.

"This is the first time I have ever seen a public official drive a conversation in social media to this extent," says Lauren Ashburn, editor-in-chief of The Daily Download, a website focused on new media and politics. "And he's able to do that, because he's amassed this social media machine over the last eight years, and he's now using it to govern, to persuade people to his point of view. It's like the machine that propelled him into office never stopped."

Ashburn, a former managing editor at USA Today, says Obama broke new ground Wednesday in placing Twitter at the core of his strategy to create a consensus on keeping tax cuts for the middle class while increasing the rate for those making over $250,000 a year.

"We've seen people play around on Twitter and Facebook and social media to try and affect social policy and change," she says. "And it's worked in small test cases. But never like this. When President Obama stood in the White House and said, 'Tweet with hashtag My2K,' it immediately became a top trending on Twitter. That's just incredible."

William Powers, director of The Crowdwire, a project analyzing the role of social media in 2012 presidential race, saw it as a breakthrough moment as well, and he emailed all his colleagues at Bluefin Labs, a Boston-based firm specializing in social media metrics, about it Wednesday.

"And I said, 'Hey, look at this, the election's over and Obama's recognizing that social media can be used for more than just getting re-elected. Here he's using it to push a policy ... And I saw it as a signal that the political leaders' use of social media had matured a lot just in the last year."

Powers, a former reporter for the Washington Post, is to the best of my knowledge the first analyst to recognize and explain the power such Twitter hashtags have in setting the agenda for mainstream media.

In an interview following the second presidential debate in October, Powers told me that he saw a "new symbiosis between Twitter and the news media" in the use of hashtags based on things said in the debates.

The result, as he explained it, was the emergence of a near-instant news cycle driven by editors seeing hashtags go viral and then ordering up stories based on the hashtags -- in effect, validating those hashtags and shaping the news budgets for everything from cable and network TV programs to websites and morning newspapers.

"It's like a new cycle is happening that we don't even have a word for yet," he said. "It's changing the whole process."

Powers says everything that he's seen since has only re-enforced his notion of the way Twitter is re-arranging the media and cultural landscape.

"I think it's really re-shaping the cycle, because we've now got this line or wire into the public with Twitter that we never had before," he explains.

"So when a hashtag crops up like bindersfullofwomen or Big Bird during the debate, and there are so many of them, that is an authentic, public response to a significant event and that is instantly usable by a journalist," he insists. "And I don't think there's been anything comparable in the history of elections. We've normally had to wait days or even a week for a poll to tell us how the public perceived an event, and now we can get it immediately on Twitter."

In addition to Obama using the hashtag to push policy Wednesday, Powers also saw significance in the instant Twitter response by the Republicans

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, bought the hashtag My2K as a promoted tweet, which means that it appeared at the top of the list when someone searched the term. The president's tweet, meanwhile, appeared beneath it. If the Heritage Foundation didn't exactly shanghai Obama's hashtag, it did a pretty good job of mixing the message.