Sam B. writes:
I've noticed that the hashtag has bled out beyond its origin as a way of grouping similar messages on Twitter by topic (ie #TahrirSquare, #fukushima, #election, etc)
Now, they're sort of being used in a bizarre syntax of their own, as an aside at the end of a statement.
In these cases, the hashtag is just adding some parenthetical meaning, whether it's sarcastic or sincere. But it's being used in places where there's no character limit as there is on Twitter, so it's completely out of place and without function. It seems like a digital tic of sorts. Instead of just saying what we want to say, or saying what we think or feel, people are writing a statement and then adding a hashtag at the end and expecting that to have sufficient meaning.
Sam cites some Facebook wall posts or comments where hashtags like #ridiculous or #hurt are added at the end. His observation has two parts: first, that hashtags are being used in places like Facebook where there's no character limit; and second, that hashtags are sometimes used to express a reaction rather than to facilitate topic tracking.
He's far from the first person to raise these questions. There was a recent Reddit discussion of "Why do people use #hashtags on Facebook?", 12/9/2011:
I find it annoying. It does nothing. It's for twitter to search, but then people come along on Facebook and #hashtag #every #word #but #it #does # NOTHING! They don't even look cool while doing it…
There's lots of previous discussion out there, e.g. Terri Greene, "The popularity of the hashtag…on Facebook?!!!", 3/28/2011; "Why do people use hashtags on Facebook? Is it possible to use them for anything? If so, how?", Quora 4/1/2011; [update] and Ben Zimmer, "Twitter's self-deprecation revolution", Boston Globe 9/25/2011, and "The Art of the Self-Mocking Hashtag", 9/21/2011.
Google+ has added explicit support for hashtags:
You don't have to use hashtags on Google+ (search works fine without them), but when you do, we'll automatically link to search results.
And there's a charmingly spelled petition to get Facebook to start responding to them as well:
Hashtags help to navigate in Topics very fast.
Now they are aviable in Google+, too.
What is facebook waitig for?
Someone has posted six and a half minutes of YouTube instructions on "How To Create Hashtags On Facebook And Make It Go Viral!" ("…In order to get hashtags to work on Facebook, you have to use Fanpages…")
Sam's second point, that hashtags have moved beyond mere topic tracking, and are now sometimes used for parenthetical commentary or as verbal emoticons, was discussed at length a couple of years ago by Susan Orlean, ("Hash", The New Yorker 6/29/2010:
Hashtags have [...] undergone mission creep, and now do all sorts of interesting things. Frequently, they are used to set apart a side commentary on tweets, sort of like those little mice in the movie “Babe” who appear at the bottom of the frame and, in their squeaky little mouse voices, comment on what you’ve just seen and what you’re about to see. A typical commentary-type hashtag might look like this:
“Sarah Palin for President??!? #Iwouldratherhaveamoose”
This usage totally subverts the original purpose of the hashtag, since the likelihood of anyone searching the term “Iwouldratherhaveamoose” is next to zero. But that isn’t the point. This particular hashtaggery is weirdly amusing, because, for some reason, starting any phrase with a hashtag makes it look like it’s being muttered into a handkerchief; when you read it you feel like you’ve had an intimate moment in which the writer leaned over and whispered “I would rather have a moose!” in your ear.
Another way hashtags are being deployed is as disclaimers—a more sophisticated, verbal version of the dread winking emoticon that tweens use to signify that they’re joking. For instance:
“I just made out with your husband! #kidding”
There some further discussion of such developments in Ashley Parker, "Twitter's secret handshake", NYT 6/10/2011:
[P]eople began using hashtags to add humor, context and interior monologues to their messages — and everyday conversation. [...]
When Adam Sharp was hired as Twitter’s Washington liaison, he said he received a number of e-mails wishing him well — and, of course, #congrats. [...]
Hashtags have also made their way into the vernacular. “Because of the use of hashtags, you can use one word to describe something and it’s kind of a mental hashtag,” [Ginger] Wilcox said. “So it’s like, ‘Awkward!’ or “Winning!’ And yes, definitely ‘Fail.’ For that one I often hear ‘Pound fail.’ ”
Jane Olson, the senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Oxygen Media, said her network began using hashtags in their advertising in late 2010. “It’s a nod to ‘we know you and we live in your world,’ but it’s also a way to get a conversation started in our advertising,” she said, adding, “The other funny thing that’s been happening is that people around the office have started to talk in hashtags — ‘Hashtag sorry I’m late,’ or ‘Hashtag bad day.’ ”
There is also the unofficial Hashtag Mafia, people who flash one another the hashtag sign — crossing their index and middle finger of one hand over the same two fingers of their other hand to create a physical hashtag. #IronicGesture #WeHope
“I have pictures of people actually using the actual hashtag symbol, and it’s like they’re flashing a gang sign, but they’re doing a hashtag,” Ms. Wilcox said. “That gets really geeky.”
And in "The Art of the Self-Mocking Hashtag", Ben Zimmer focused on "how hashtagging has become the perfect vehicle for self-directed sarcasm, used by celebrities and common folk alike":
[T]he tech-savvy actor Wil Wheaton (who began earning geek cred back when he played Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation) recently tried to link to pictures of himself on the set of The Big Bang Theory. After he gave the wrong link, he tweeted, "I love that I'm trying to be all clever, and then I epic fail at basic linking. #lessonsinhumility #facepalm #hashtag."
Aside from the hash/pound/octothorp notation and the cultural cross-references, there's not really any linguistic innovation here. People have been using single words and short phrases for quasi-parenthetical commentary, ironic or otherwise, more or less forever.
I'm wondering, do you think this is damaging to our ability to communicate?
Have syntax fads like this occurred in the past?
Is there something about our time and the way we communicate that makes the hashtag so attractive?
Among vaguely similar cultural developments in the past, I can think of the "fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s"; the ironic use of stage directions ("exit, stage left"); the rise of emoticons in the 1980s and 1990s; the use of HTML-ish verbal emoticons or text actions like <grin> or <scratch head>. No doubt readers will be able to think of others.
In fact, I suppose that you could think of the key steps in the development of writing systems — the rebus principle and the charades principle — as "fads" of a similar sort.
And on balance, such things seem to enhance communication rather than damaging it.
Update — over on Gizmodo, Sam Biddle expands on "How the Hashtag is Ruining the English Language (Updated)". Geoff Nunberg Facebook-linked to his rant, and commented
I think of the ironized hashtag as sort of a typographic variation of the old "file under ___" standby, as in "John Rocker Admits Steroid Use, File Under 'Who Gives A Shit?'" or "For the 'Duh! file'" Or maybe as in "File under 'lessons of the digital age': what goes round, comes round, but in fewer characters."