Blog Excerpts

Whither The #Hashtag?

The hashtag, which was born on Twitter as a handy way to organize conversation, is now spreading to Facebook. But there's a #hashtag #backlash, too, with some wondering if the convention has outlived its usefulness.

For an introduction to the hashtag and its many uses, see Ben Zimmer's 2011 Word Routes column:

A hashtag, for the non-Twitterati, is a word or smashed-together phrase preceded by the hash symbol (#), originally devised as a way to keep track of the flow of subject matter in the Twittersphere. But the function of the hashtag has morphed significantly since Chris Messina and his colleagues began using it in 2007 as a method of indexing topics of interest. (Even the word hashtag has moved in unexpected directions: whereas it has typically referred to a string of characters prefixed by the hash symbol, now it often gets used for the symbol itself, including in Twitter's own help documentation.)

[H]ashtagging has become the perfect vehicle for self-directed sarcasm, used by celebrities and common folk alike. Take a look at how a pro does it: the tech-savvy actor Wil Wheaton (who began earning geek cred back when he played Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation) recently tried to link to pictures of himself on the set of The Big Bang Theory. After he gave the wrong link, he tweeted, "I love that I'm trying to be all clever, and then I epic fail at basic linking. #lessonsinhumility #facepalm #hashtag." (If his use of "epic fail" seems unusual, check out my On Language column and Word Routes followup on recent transformations of fail.) Wheaton uses the self-effacing "#lessonsinhumility" hashtag, followed by "#facepalm" ("the act of bringing one's palm to one's face to indicate embarrassment, exasperation, or despair," says Wordspy), capped off by a meta-ironic touch, a "#hashtag" hashtag. [...]

Or consider the Twitter auteur (and humblebragger extraordinaire) Kanye West, who last year tweeted, "You have to balance ignorance with intellect! Can't have school with out recess! #Greatesttweetofalltime." To an outsider, the hashtag might seem like pure arrogance, but anyone following the rap star's career would have recognized it as a tongue-in-cheek callback to his interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards with the message that Beyonce had made "one of the best videos of all time!" Thus in a single hashtag Kanye managed to poke fun at his own foibles with his typical mixture of bravado and self-skewering.

Last January, hashtag was selected by the American Dialect Society as the 2012 Word of the Year (which was presaged by University of Illinois English professor Dennis Baron here). Since then, the hashtag continues its domination, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that Facebook is now working on adopting it. But not everyone is a fan. On the Nieman Journalism Lab's blog, New York Times social media staff editor Daniel Victor says that hashtags aren't all that useful in attracting audiences, and what's more, they're "aesthetically damaging."

Yesterday, Ben Zimmer spoke about the evolution of the hashtag on the CBC Show "Q" with Jian Ghomeshi. You can listen to the interview here.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 14th 2014, 3:52 PM
Comment by: Sharron T. (Ottawa Canada)
So, how come I can't find Hashtag when I attempt to look it up in the Visual Thesaurus dictionary? :-)
Sunday May 18th 2014, 7:55 AM
Comment by: Heike S.
I had the same problem.

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