Thinking About the Hashtag

It often takes time to recognise a new medium for what it is instead of the content it carries, especially when we’re thinking about the wrong medium.

In the history of media studies, there has often been years of focus on the content of a medium before anyone starts to think about its broader social influence. This stems from popular reaction to new media in the form of moral panics — “won’t somebody please think of the children” — and the problem of how to assess something that isn’t immediately visible.

photo from Flickr/quinnanya

The hashtag is one of those media forms that, for some time now, has stayed under the radar even while we’ve used it, abused it, studied it, and studied what it carries. It’s one thing to think about the kinds of conversations the hashtag organises, the way it can help retrieve data and the cross-platform bleed, but it’s another entirely to look at just what those two sets of parallel lines really are.

Here are my thoughts:

The hashtag is demotic

Those who call internet media democratic wilfully ignore vast inequalities in access and privilege on the net and elsewhere. But there is a better word which still comes from the Greek demos (“of the people”). Demotic suggests an element of colloquialism, of folksonomy and of popular usage. The hashtag arose from within user communities on chat boards and forums and came to prominence on Twitter when a user suggested it to organise topics. It is user-generated and curated, but that doesn’t mean it is free from technical and social convention.

The hashtag is changeable

If one hashtag stream becomes too full of spam and abuse, users simply migrate to another. The hashtag also changes to fits its environment. Usage of the hashtag is not limited to any one particular behaviour. It can signify meta-commentary on the content of the post, or tie itself to a bigger converasation. It can be used to attract attention or hide away.

The hashtag is convergent

Hashtags are cross-media. They pop up in all sorts of places now, including here on Medium, on Twitter, Facebook, Google + and blogs. Tagging has always been big on the net, but hashtags are a special form of tagging that demonstrate what Henry Jenkins calls convergence:

the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences

The hashtag as search engine

Hashtags have a functional value in organising and giving access to information. They’ve lately come to act as the search engine of social networks. Type almost any hashtag into Twitter search and you’ll find someone using it. You can then choose to add to the conversation or go another way.

The hashtag as advertisement

Finally, hashtags are widely deployed by advertisers, especially on Twitter, as a way of inorganically promoting conversations around products. Advertisers have traditionally been early and eager adopters of many media technologies.

photo via Flickr/cogdog

Where to now?

Although there has been lots of work looking at what hashtags do and what role they play in social networks and elsewhere, there has been little cogent work on theorising the hashtag as a medium and object with influence in its own right. It is a digital-era innovation which has a life well beyond those networks where it was first used and even beyond those where it reached public consciousness. Now is the time to think more about the hashtag and what it tells us about human communication.