If Twitter is useful for anything beyond a flamethrower of breaking news and URL errata, it's forcing us to be considerate about language—we have to use space wisely. Unfortunately, the hashtag is ruining talking. #NotGonnaLie
This modern use of hashtags was pioneered several years ago by one dude: Chris Messina, a Google employee. Messina thought the old pound symbol—hitherto untapped online—could be a good way to "tag" tweets, adding order to the enormous gas cloud of noise that is 99% of all Twitter action. That function works—we could search for #fukushima or #tahrirsquare this past year and yield news.
This origin doesn't matter anymore. Hashtags at their best stand in as what linguists call "paralanguage," like shoulder shrugs and intonations. That's fine. But at their most annoying, the colloquial hashtag has burst out of its use as a sorting tool and become a linguistic tumor—a tic more irritating than any banal link or lazy image meme. The hashtag is conceptually out of bounds, being used by computer conformists without rules, sense, or intelligence, a like yknowwwww that now permeates the internet outside of the tweets it was meant to corral. It pervades Facebook, texting, Foursquare—turning into a form of "ironic metadata," as linguist Ben Zimmer of The Visual Thesaurus labels it.
But why the need for metadata when regular words have been working so well? When the New York Times decided to acknowledge the hashtag this summer (!) it quoted Messina with a line that ought to be evidence enough to indict the #:
"You kind of have to be in-the-know," Mr. Messina said. "So it's one of those jokes where you're like, ‘Oh, I see what you did there, because you're on Twitter and I'm on Twitter.' "
This makes sense to Zimmer: "[hashtags] show that you're part of a community that shares these conventions, to show that you're playing the game." Beyond fashionable crutch, the hashtag makes people feel part of something. But we don't need more inside jokes, culture cliques, or frivolous gestures. Adding a hashtag doesn't make you "in the know," because there's nothing to know—most of the time I don't see what you did there, because you didn't do anything there. Like adding a rimshot to your own joke, we now stick hashtags in our digital statements because we think that might validate them as part of this new, mangled syntax.
Take #winning. What does it mean? Charlie Sheen's sagging, animated corpse of a career spoke through his coke-nozzle and spoke to us. It wanted to proclaim that he was doin' just fine. #Winning. It took off as the lowbrow badge of choice across Twitterdom, signifying success without showing it. You could say the saddest heap of shit, add #winning, and that seven letter thumbs up would make it OK.
Just dropped my girl off at GameStop shes gonna bey me Call of Duty cause were both high LOL #winning
The hashtag is a vulgar crutch, a lazy reach for substance in the personal void—written clipart.
Some examples of the Accessory Hashtag I've found on Facebook, where the germ has spread rapidly:
Why didn't they just express the things they hashtagged?
In all of these cases, the hashtag is nothing more than an emoticon of sorts, says UC Berkeley Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. And this explicit See what I did here? hashtag use is plain "stupid," Nunberg laments, because any trace of irony is neutralized once you point to it with a big honking #. Why write something excitedly when you can lazily throw in #excited? Why not just say "I miss you" instead of #missingyou? Why put a sentence through this kaleidoscope of formatting horse shit instead of just saying something? Say anything. The bar is set so head-imploding-ly low—just write a statement that doesn't require me to retroactively apply a hashtag to get the gist of what you're saying. Once the hashtag has been applied so sloppily, killed as a form of interesting metacommentary, "it's not doing what it's meant to," says Nunberg. It's broken and gratuitous.
The bad news is, we shouldn't expect hashtagification to go anywhere. "That it's misused," says Nunberg, "comes with the territory." Nunberg and Zimmer agree that the hashtag has potential as an exciting new form of creative expression and satire—everyone's laughed at #whitegirlproblems at least once. And I'm inclined to agree. And like everything else on the internet, once it's kinda popular, it's really popular, and there's nothing we can do about it. "[It] can be annoying, certainly," agrees Zimmer, "to see people hashtagging in inappropriate places or creating arbitrary new ones where it doesn't seem necessary. But that just indicates that the hashtag culture has really taken off." Language is fluid, especially online, and that's something to be eager about—unless it's dragging our tongues down. I hope only that the fad part of the fire will flame out quickly, yielding a genuinely radical new way of speaking online. In the meantime, we're all a bit dumber and a lot more confused. #FML
Photo courtesy of Jackie Lampungnano
Update: Eminent linguist and one of the greatest minds of our time, Noam Chomsky, wrote to me with his thoughts on the matter:
"Don't use Twitter, almost never see it."
There you have it.