Not just word evolution—now it’s punctuation’s time
I’m not super huge into social media. I use my Twitter account to follow others and but I rarely tweet, and my Facebook account is much the same: I love following people, but I don’t really love having my own stuff out there. Anything else (Pinterest,Foursquare, Instagram…) I’ve never touched. But, despite that, I have a confession: I adore hashtags.
I know they’re supposed to be used to aggregate posts and responses to a certain topic and allow people to follow a conversation. And they do that. Political and social movements use them as a rallying cry and symbol of solidarity (see #EuroMaidan or #Occupy).
But they often don’t serve this purpose at all. People often add a hashtag to a post without ever really expecting it to aggregate thoughts on a matter (“I know I’m not supposed to complain about the weather in Vancouver, but I hate this rain #livinginarainforest #neednewboots”). What they actually do a lot of the time is serve a really neat purpose as a kind of linguistic add-on to a thought or post.
They get made fun of a lot, most humorously in the famous Timberlake-Fallon sketch, and it’s true that sometimes posts are just hashtag forests, especially when they use super long strings of words (#cantseeyourmessageforthetrees). And it’s also true that they’re creeping out of social media and into other modes of communication.
I recently wrote an email that ended with me describing how busy I am, and I finished the email with #lifeofaneditor. I did. Because somehow that seemed like a sweeter and more compact way of saying “That’s what life is like when you’re an editor.”
This from a recent text I sent: ”They interrupted the story about Eugenie Bouchard for the ‘live breaking news’ of a football player announcing his retirement!?!? Booooo #sportsheirarchies.” (Note: I mean no offense to the football player in question and recognize that he has had a long and great career, but my objection to this was that it qualified as #livebreakingnews. And they never did get back to the story about Bouchard.) Again, the hashtag picked out a theme of my text and clarified what it was that I found offensive. Absolutely necessary? No—people are smart enough to pick out themes, especially in something as short as a text message. Fun? Absolutely. Value-adding? Possibly—if nothing else, they add an extra layer of meaning.
Hashtags originated as a type of metadata tag (well, originally they were pound signs, no?), but they’re actually meta-thought tags, letting us pick out themes in our thoughts and acting as little capstones—not grammatical punctuation but thought punctuation. And I’m glad they’re moving from social media to email and texts and even speech—I say we need more.