The tyranny of the hashtag?

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First aired on Q (26/03/13)

Even if you're not a fan of Twitter, you've probably noticed a proliferation of hashtags out there. The pound symbol (#) started out as an afterthought, but it unexpectedly led to bringing together Arab Spring participants (#jan25), and it's migrating from Twitter. Now you can see it used in print articles, online memes, on Instragram and even in speech, as witnessed at this year's Grammy Awards, when L.L. Cool J inserted the word "hashtag" in front of the names of celebrities when he introduced them. And the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook might soon start using hashtags as part of the newsfeed. Is the hashtag really here to stay?

Linguist Ben Zimmer chairs the American Dialects Society's new words committee, which recently named "hashtag" the word of 2012. Zimmer spoke with Jian Ghomeshi on Q recently about the future of the hashtag.

Zimmer argues that Facebook's adoption of the hashtag is inevitable. "The wild success of the hashtag on Twitter has led it to become a kind of default way of organizing conversations according to different subjects," said Zimmer.

But is that the only reason Zimmer's committee named "hashtag" the word of 2012? "We saw that the term 'hashtag' had really taken off in a serious way, not just last year, but over the course of the past few years," he said. "[It's] taken off in such a way that it's become a way of creating a new kind of commentary, or meta-commentary on what you're saying...what was fascinating wasn't just the word itself but what it represented."

As hard as it might be to remember a time before hashtags, the hashtag convention started on Twitter in 2007, so it hasn't really been around that long. "The great thing about these online phenomena is that you can track these things pretty closely," said Zimmer. "So we can see the very beginning of it: August 23, 2007." That's the day that Chris Messina, who now works at Google, made the suggestion to use the # symbol to organize Tweets from, say, the same conference. A few days later the symbol was named the hashtag, and it stuck ("hash" is another name for the pound symbol).

"From that way of organizing then spread out and had all these other discursive uses from telling jokes to spreading memes," said Zimmer. "The many, many uses of it made it this powerful vehicle for all sorts of messages on Twitter, and then we've seen that extending to other social media. Facebook is just the latest to pick it up."

Of course, hashtags aren't without their haters. In a recent post on the tech blog Gizmodo, Sam Biddle has argued that the hashtag is ruining the English language, that it's lazy. "The hashtag has been a victim of its own success," said Zimmer. "We see these internet memes or other things that become online clichés and they're preceded by the hash symbol, so we blame the hashtag for something that we don't like about online culture."

But if you're annoyed by, say, last year's irritating online slang phenomenon #yolo (which stands for "you only live once"), don't blame the hashtag convention. "Your problem is really with the social phenomenon, not with the hashtag convention," argued Zimmer. "The hashtag convention itself has proved to be extremely useful for a whole variety of's a vehicle for organizing our discourse in a certain way. The hashtag itself is not to blame for things you might object to online."

In other words, don't hate the hashtag, hate the hashtagger.

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