For all of Twitter's social innovation, the creation of the #hashtag may be its greatest misstep.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
One of the pleasures of etymology is the haphazard freedom it reveals in language, a process of generational improvisation and forgetfulness that depends on consensus and repetition more than order and logic. Though we live in a time of celebrated individual voices and personal achievement, it can never be forgotten that the language we use is not really our own. All of our habits of expression depend on the standards of time and place, we are buried under the epochal differences in manners, grammar, education, and mechanisms for distributing written language. Twitter has been among the fastest growing mechanisms for capturing and distributing language, a technical tool that captures the particular constraints of language our generation is trapped in and limited by.
This week, The New York Times social media staff editor, Daniel Victor, wrote a criticism of the role hashtags play on Twitter, both as a tool for searching content as an aesthetic device. Victor uses this year's Super Bowl as an example, where the event hashtag was used about three million times during the five hours the game was on-air. "Though there were peaks and valleys, 3 million tweets over five hours comes out to an average of 167 tweets per second," Victor wrote. "To say that someone would have to search for “#SuperBowl” in the split-second you sent it would actually be a little generous; assuming they’ll notice your tweet if it’s in the most recent 10 tweets, users would have a window of 1/17 of a second to find you."
Hashtags force self-importance to express itself in the crudest of all possible forms, attaching woefully misplaced sentiments to literally coded #subjects sent to take advantage of other people's attention spans and gullibility.
Victor's argument hinges on a belief that participatory irrelevance is a bad thing, and that the ultimate goal of Twitter is influence through exposure, a concern Victor presumably makes on behalf of his employer. Because the channels of producing and distributing language are no longer centrally controlled, companies whose identity depends on status and influence are frustrated by Twitter's equivocating effect. The faux-neutrality of the journalistic voice and the portentous weight of A1 headlines stink of self-importance when relying on social distribution networks to have an impact.
Twitter doesn't just make stories visible and connected to timely events, but it makes the certain kind of people interested in those stories visible as a type. In the old days, there was no concept of audience visibility and so media companies that traded in language could define their own identities, but with Twitter the audience merges with the content, the story becomes the social stereotype. Frenzies of hashtagging are not inconvenient flaws in the system but media self-importance embodied, the elephantine stampede from subject to subject, not because it's important or worthwhile, but because of an animal tingle triggered by the forming of crowds.
Victor is right when he says hashtags are "aesthetically damaging" and that a post without hashtags is "more pleasing to the eye, more easily consumed, and thus more likely to be retweeted." Hashtags are garish abominations of machine meaning, an acquiescence to a computerized approach to language, offering users a hideous opportunity to speak like robots, coding symbolically heavy-handed subjects into otherwise opaque posts. Hashtags make the mechanism of manipulating meaning through form uncomfortably obvious. This was a baroque art form for outlets like the New York Times, built from a rigidly objective-seeming narrative structure: a personal anecdote to open, a social context that makes the anecdote seem like a trend, a volley of facts that give empirical support to the trend-frame, a few inconclusive quotes from researchers to suggest an interpretation, and a non-committal closer that tosses the lonesome subject of the opening anecdote into the trend-event vortex.
Linguistic constructs like this are self-evidently manipulative and unethical when left to stand on their own—they require the backing of audience consensus to make their imperial dramatizing seem true and important. There is something reciprocal in this relationship, wherein the individual reader can chuff their own personal brand by acting as a pass-through for allegedly important insights and events. Hashtags force this self-importance to express itself in the crudest of all possible forms, attaching woefully misplaced sentiments to literally coded #subjects sent to take advantage of other people's attention spans and gullibility in an effort to place themselves at the center of whatever crowd happens to be forming.
The Internet is least itself when used for seriousness. It's essence is an unethical stripping away of context from language and symbols, done for the sake of forming connections between distant or unexpected subjects. It pays for the widening of its network by an increasing narrowness of meaning, turning the multivalent modes of face-to-face interpretation into a garish nightmare machine of social conflict, the violent anxiety it produces are directly connected to all the nonlinguistic meanings it strips from our communication. Twitter, like the Internet itself, was built for nonsense, and with hashtags it is becoming a monument to human pettiness in thought and the impulses of profiteering that attend to it.