It had all the makings of a social media disaster. NBC invested nearly $1.2 billion for broadcast rights for the 2012 London Olympics, but before the first competitive event began an #NBCfail hashtag movement was underway.

It started on July 26 with a single post by a web developer from Peoria who was frustrated that NBC limited online streaming of coverage to cable subscribers. The next day, 215 others used the #NBCfail hashtag. As the network delayed airing some events to primetime, 6,000 #NBCfails popped up July

28. By July 29, that number grew more than three-fold to 20,000.

But then something unexpected happened. Even though the number of #NBCfail tweets continued to flourish, nobody seemed to care.

Ratings for the 2012 Olympics are up over the strong performance at the 2008 Beijing Games. The $200 million dollar loss that NBC projected it would consume has apparently transformed in to a small profit.

Now the social whiners seem to be talking to themselves. An @NBCfail parody Twitter handle has attracted all of 546 followers. @NBCOlympics, the network’s official Twitter handle, has more than 465,000.

In the contest between #NBCfail and NBC, the network is winning. I see three social media lessons:

1. Hashtags aren’t very sticky

#NBCfail is fun, but there isn’t any “there there.” That’s not surprising if you consider the findings of a recent study on hashtags by computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon and Cornell University. It shows that outside of politics, hashtags just aren’t that sticky. According to the study, while politically charged hashtags tend to spread, “such repeated exposures has a much less important marginal effect on the adoption of conversational idioms.” That suggests brands need to keep an eye on hashtag-based campaigns, but they don’t need to fear dire outcomes — nor should they hope for business results or changes in attitudes by executing a hashtag effort.

2. Nobody respects nasty

A good deal of the messages that preceded the #NBCfail hashtag were needlessly mean-spirited. Here’s one example: “NBC’s gymnastics coverage is fake, jingoistic, and stupid.” Or how about “Dear NBC – you may have heard that we Americans occasionally watch live sports on Sunday afternoons. You incredible doofuses.” Those kinds of attacks may hurt the brand ego, but they tend to undermine the credibility of the stream. And brands can expect something of a backlash from supporters and level-headed social watchers who will turn the tide back in their favor.

3. Sift gold from the stream

In a crisis being fueled by social media, a company’s greatest asset may the very hashtags themselves. Smart brands sift out the nasty comments and find highly valuable customer feedback in the streams. #NBCfail Tweets gave NBC real-time market research and insights on how to adjust behavior and messaging.

There are, by the way, two other explanations for why NBC’s ratings have held strong. First, the network’s coverage has actually been excellent. And second, the games themselves have been superb. Which establishes a simply reality: it’s a lot more fun to watch NBC’s coverage of the games than to read the endless stream of tweets flying the #NBCfail banner.

Greg Loh is the managing partner of public relations and public affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s leading independent marketing communications agencies. Views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of EMA.