As is often the case, I’ve found myself considering the language we use in our daily lives. As a blogger, it seems only natural to spend a portion of my time considering the written word, but I also communicate with many people by poking at a keyboard: e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text messages fill up a good deal of my time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I haven’t stopped talking to people in person—but it does give me space to consider our habits in and out of the written word. One strange phenomenon is the hashtag.
Originally intended as a way of organizing tweets, the hashtag has evolved into a form of meta-commentary; it finds itself inserted into nearly any sort of social media, whether or not anyone else has ever used that hashtag before or will ever use it again. Some use it as a way of expressing the emotion behind what they just said, while others simply point to a broader topic that connects to what they’ve written. #demonstration
I have found myself poking fun at the hashtag in the past, usually by using it. When I first got my brother onto Twitter, he asked questions about the hashtag, and I gave him a brief tutorial. By the end of our discussion, however, we were poking fun at the absurdity that some people find themselves in when they go too far with their hashtags: our entire messages were long hashtags. #itwassortoflikethis
Over at Gizmodo, Sam Biddle argues that the “Hashtag is Ruining the English Language.” Of course, this is a dramatic reaction to something as simple as a new sort of expression in a language, and I think the article is played for laughs. Perhaps my favorite moment, however, is this:
The hashtag is a vulgar crutch, a lazy reach for substance in the personal void—written clipart.
The frustration he feels over the hashtag is a bit strong, I think, but there might be something to his reaction; if we become lazy in our expressions simply because we have a tool to immediately point out our meaning, perhaps we will slowly lose the ability to read beyond what is explicitly written. This would be a step backwards; rather than learning to express ourselves better, we would be teaching ourselves that understanding another person is as easy as looking at the last word of their post.
That said, I think that the hashtag can be a wonderful tool. In its original purpose it still thrives; people have been live-tweeting events and news stories with unprecedented speed and insight. I’ve used it to network at conferences, and Twitter’s hashtag feature helped many users, myself included, keep up with #fukushima or other globally significant events.
The New York Times suggests that the hashtag is primarily a way of announcing that you are a part of Twitter, in on the joke. The article recognizes the other uses of the symbol, which is good, because if it stopped at an in joke, I’d agree with Mr. Biddle’s frustrations; the hashtag would be irritating more than it would be an evolution of language. I enjoy using hashtags on Twitter, even for purposes other than making my content searchable, and I find myself using them on Facebook or in text messages. Often this is with a twinge of irony; I know what I’m doing doesn’t really make sense, but language is weird and I can enjoy that fact by using a hashtag in this text message, right? #apparentlyso
But there is one place I don’t think we need hashtags: the spoken language. I’ve not yet encountered this phenomenon, thank goodness, but apparently some people actually say “hashtag good day” or “hashtag awkward.” If the written hashtag is primarily used to provide another means of communicating or interpreting messages, it is useful precisely because of the limitations of the written word. Emotion is difficult to express when writing, as is sarcasm, and the hashtag may be an easy way for many people to do this. But if we need to resort to hashtagging our spoken words, I have to wonder if we should be speaking our punctuation. After all, the hashtag should only reflect something already apparent in our lives, much like a comma might represent a pause in a sentence.