Facebook announced this week that it is adopting the hashtag – supposedly to “help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations.” Some writers herald this as a momentous occasion.
But though hashtags once served a constructive purpose (and still can, when used judiciously), most have devolved into meaningless quasi-expressions – and are even infecting our verbal language and grammar.
Chris Messina is credited with having invented the hashtag in August 2007; it was designed to “gather discussions and online exchanges” on Twitter. By prefixing a word or sentence with the pound sign, users created a searchable metdata tag.
Twitter founder Evan Williams initially thought hashtags were too technical to become popular; unfortunately, they’re now more popular than technical. While created as a “tag” for communities (#StudentsForObama), emerging debates (#StandWithRand), or historic events like #TahrirSquare, the hashtag has largely devolved into a cacophany of meta-communication. As Sam Biddle writes,
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.
Instagram and Twitter are bombarded with hashtag gibberish every day. Many are primarily designed for self-focused clamor. Some examples: #likeforlike, #likeforalike (in case #likeforlike doesn’t cover it), #likeitup, #liketeam, #followme, #followforfollow, and #teamfollowback.
— tsproductionsbeats (@tsproductionsuk) June 14, 2013
With each hashtag added, the user’s post theoretically reaches a larger number of people. But mostly they just get in the way of communicating in the first place. Often, even “context”-creating hashtags are meaningless and self-aggrandizing (#happy, #ilovemylife, #cutestboyfriendever, etc.).
— Serena Licchetta (@SerenaLicchetta) June 14, 2013
— Lyndsay Quinlan (@lyndsquinlan) June 14, 2013
— Jess Bradway (@jessbradway) June 13, 2013
Some of my acquaintances have started using hashtags in daily conversation. For instance, “Did you watch that Youtube video? Hashtag funny.” As Ashley Droitburg writes at Gizmodo, the hashtag is now “a stylistic crutch to be used when crafting coherent English seems like a bit too much work.”