It seems like everywhere you look on the Internet these days, you’ll see the ubiquitous hashtag. The hashtag was the "Word of the Year" in 2012, and for good reason. What started out primarily as a way of searching and organizing content on Twitter has morphed into something entirely different – a condensed form of self-expression made necessary by 140-character space constraints (#NotGonnaLie); a way to deliver pithy commentary on hot-button issues; and a way to say something without really saying anything (#winning). In other words, hashtags have become the bumper stickers of the Internet, mindlessly plastered onto the micro-content we create each day in the same way we used to plaster pithy little stickers on the bumpers of our cars.
Now that Internet heavies like Facebook and Yahoo are getting in on the #hashtag action, the humble hashtag will become even more of a throwaway, stripped of its former significance and transformed into digital swag by marketers. Just consider some of the hashtags that have been trending recently on Twitter – #heroesneverdie, #voteneverever, #themostannoyingthingsever – any one of these would make the perfect slogan to slap on the bumper of your SUV. If Twitter had been invented a generation ago, the trending topics of the day would have been things like #mychildisanhonorstudent and #jesuslovesyou and #makelovenotwar.
And it’s not just me that’s noticed a general degradation in the use of the hashtag ever since it was named the Word of the Year. Daniel Victor, a social media editor at the New York Times, agrees. In a guest blog post for the Neiman Journalism Lab this week, he tracked the use of hashtags in news stories and concluded that their usefulness has been greatly decreasing over time. They are no longer useful for finding what you need, especially during big media events, when potentially millions of people are using the same hashtag at the same time. The lesson is clear: "Hashtags for big news stories are particularly vulnerable to mathematical futility." In fact, it’s become a precarious art to even come up with hashtags that are popular enough that people actually use them, but not so rare that they’re esoteric:
"If you lace your tweet with topical signifiers like #china, #food or #art, or of-the-moment news stories like #marchmadness or #prop8, you’re calculating that there will be a lot of people searching for it, but not so many using it that your tweet would be overwhelmed. It’s a narrow set of circumstances."
Of course, there will be some who vehemently disagree with this analysis of the modern hashtag. They are the ones who proudly describe a new Hashtag Economy in which the humble hashtag has become "an indicator of value in the Twitter information exchange." That may have been partially true 18 months ago, but now that Facebook is embracing the hashtag, does anyone really believe this anymore? Have you looked at your Twitter feed recently?
In short, hashtags have gone from flavor du jour and au courant to outré and passé. (Pardon my French, hashtag fans)
So what’s to be done if we’re to save the Internet from a growing number of these ugly digital bumper stickers? Other than urgently petition Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to #UnfriendTheHashtag or inform Marissa Mayer of Yahoo (which owns Flickr) that #HashtagsDontTelecommuteWell, there’s not much to be done. They are here to stay. Just go online -- your Internet friends and followers most likely have tweets and status updates already appearing in your feeds and streams, filled with the latest ridiculous hashtags that signify nothing. #YouKnowWhatIMean?
image: Bumper Stickers (filtered) / Wikimedia Commons