Monday’s Merriam-Webster word of the day was hashtag. Few other elements of social media have endured the same ire and satire. I’m sure many eyes rolled with the #ashtag selfies from this past Ash Wednesday. And Jimmy Fallon has poked fun at them with major celebrities. In both instances, I found myself laughing, but I didn’t know why.
Indeed, the octothorpe, relabeled and retrofitted for new media, has broken beyond the realm of the phone. In its new place, it has had some helpful uses. The hastag organizes the flood of rapid-fire information on Twitter. Revolutionaries and activists in the Arab Spring used it, and for journalists, it lets their observations climb above the noise and sail alongside other “trending” news and topics. And, as with any creative use of language, a well-used hashtag can trigger a laugh or a smile.
So why the scorn and parody? To me, I think it’s the growth pangs from a new mode of speaking entering our lexicon. We’re still learning how to use the hashtag, and as with any piece of literacy, open use creates some strange, comical combinations and incurs the skepticism of tradition.
While the the actual history of the # stretches back to the 14th century, it’s current use of grouping and labeling information began in the late ’80s on an early form of Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, which is basically a text messaging service of sorts. There, people organized and labeled messages with the revamped octothorpe.
But the history of the hastag allegedly began in earnest with Chris Messina in August 2007, who Tweeted, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” When Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone created Twitter in 2006 with the rather undramatic tweet, “just setting up my twttr,” the hastag wasn’t even a thing. Even when Messina started using the hashtag to organize Barcamp, a worldwide technology conference, Twitter’s founders were skeptical. It was too technical.
But Twitter is a rather democratic enterprise. Many Twitter essentials like the @ symbol being used to reply to someone, started with users and third-party programs first, then became integrated. Innovation did not rest on the shoulders of the founders or the cooperation. As with many online communities–whether blogging, Facebook, or YoutTube–Twitter was is “participatory culture.” And the hashtag emerged from that culture, eventually codified, literally, into the program itself.
As such, its use is largely open. Sometimes this is messy. McDonalds found this out the hard way when #McDStories, originally designed to give positive McDonalds stories, started to flood with complaints and stories of food poisoning. A hashtag can stick to anything. Moreover, as the Fallon skit and others reveal, the sorts of hashtags people use can become absurd and unintentionally comical. To some, stupid and annoying. Or, as Amanda Hess and other women can attest, hashtags and the social media they bolster can become outright abusive.
Thus, I think the hashtag provokes a deeper conversation, as shallow as it might appear on the surface. A few years ago, we could not have this conversation–there very words I am using did not exist, hashtag being one of many. Now, they are mainstream American culture and in a few years, one wonders how our daily use of technology will affect us.
This sort of world echoes what theorists Katherine Hayles and Elizabeth Haraway wrestle with by using terms like “posthuman” and “cyborg.” They’re trying to articulate the extension, alienation, and dissolution of “humanity” as it fuses with technology, as technology becomes part of how we understand ourselves and the world.
Moreover, other theorists like Cynthia Selfe and Stuart Selber stress the importance of media literacy. For Selber, such literacy has multiple levels. For some, a solid understanding of the terms and modes of discourse associated with media is enough–can you send appropriate e-mails, use Excel, etc.–but for Selber, modern subjects should have a more critical understanding. It’s not enough simply to use a hashtag, for example, but one must understand a hashtag–the culture around it, the potential abuses, the power it has. Without this deeper understanding, abuses can become more common.
So, although many may want to leave the octothorpe back on phones as the “pound key,” I think it is bound to stick with most of us, for better or worse. We can still laugh at it and shake our heads, but I think Selfe, Selber, and others are right: we must understand these new languages as they emerge and stumble into prominence. They are too widespread not to.