Hashtags' mission creep

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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.

Sam again:

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."


  1. Kento said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    Part of the reason to use a hashtag like "#Iwouldratherhaveamoose" is to see if somebody else will try to find an appropriate context for it.

    "My pet cat keeps on knocking things off the table! #Iwouldratherhaveamoose"
    "This bison burger tastes terrible! #Iwouldratherhaveamoose"
    "As a Canadian mounty, I wonder why we can't have a more Canadian mount. #Iwouldratherhaveamoose"

  2. Paul Taylor said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    There would appear to be a misunderstanding of the origin of hashtags in this article. As suggestion that they were created to allow for cross-message searching or grouping / tracking of similar Tweets.

    Hashtags were not created by Twitter and played no part in the original funntionality of Twitter. They were created by Twitter's users (as was the convention of adding "@" to someone's name when replying to them). Both conventions had arisen in previous online communication forms (IRC, Bulletin Boards, etc).

    The hashtag was, therefore, in place before any meaningful search ability had been created and it is doubtful that its primary purpose for those that used it was either of the above.

    The hastag was created to add context to a message using as few characters as possible. Witness the ubiquitous #fail hashtag. A search on this hashtag is less than useless as so many messages feature it. It does however, in just 5 characters, explain the whole purpose of the rest of the message.

    If they have become "verbal emoticons", then I would suggest that this is a return to or continuation of there original use. It is their use as a search tool that was the mission creep.

    [(my) The standard history seems to be that Chris Messina proposed the hashtag as a way of flagging metadata topics, and Twitter later created infrastructure to support it.

    Do you have a citation for the use of hashtags on IRC or bulletin boards?]

  3. ENKI-2 said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    Keep in mind that it is extremely common to link twitter with facebook and post status updates to facebook through twitter. Some large subset of these uses of 'hashtags on facebook' probably either began on twitter or began on another aggregator that posted the same string to twitter.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    Appropriating a linguistic "device" from one context to another is probably as old as language itself. To say that an extra-twitter hashtag "does nothing" is extremely naive. The fact that it's caught on so well is evidence to the contrary.

    Errrrrrrrrt! Thank you for playing The Language Game . . .

  5. William Ockham said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    Might I suggest #LanguageInnovationPeevery for Sam B. and his ilk?

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    Just because people noticed it most on Twitter (where these tags are more prominent) doesn't mean it started there. I've seen similar tagging practices on Livejournal as far back as 2005 when I started there.

  7. Paul W said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    I, for one, welcome our #hashtag mission creepers. I find the hashtag thing riduculous, so I am one who really takes the inappropriate use of hashtags to a hyperbolic extreme. Mainly because I am not amiable to #Twatter or #twatterers. #likeacabbagepatchdoll /endrant

  8. Dan T. said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    The "@username" convention, at least, has widespread use (even including this site's comment sections), and I'm not sure where it originated.

    As @ENKI-2 noted, one cause of "leakage" of conventions from one online site to another is the widespread existence of "gateways" that port over material from one site to another, like where your tweets are automatically put on Facebook as well. Also, people often copy-and-paste things from one site (or email) to another. People who do much of their online writing in one site, and are used to following its conventions, might unconsciously slip into using the same style elsewhere, or sometimes intentionally do so if they feel the style expresses a nuance they don't know how to do without it. All of these things come together to give the conventions some degree of cultural ubiquity until they become "memes" that are used and imitated even by people who don't use the original service they originated from.

    People who edit Wikipedia a lot have some tendency to (either carelessly or on purpose) leak bits of Wiki markup syntax into their comments elsewhere, like putting square brackets (single or double) around things intended to link elsewhere, {{fact}} tags next to dubious statements, and ~~~~ where the user's signature belongs.

  9. --bill said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    The article about Chris Messina seems to say that "the inspiration for the convention came from channels on IRC and the Twitter competitor Jaiku." I wonder if this use of the hashtag came from C, which has
    at the beginning of many programs. I found a usage in the newsgroup alt.callahans from 1993 of "#include "; I wonder how common the use of #include was.

  10. cxpli said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    The usage of hashtags in non-Twitter contexts is pretty similar to a subset of the faux-HTML tags you mentioned, specifically closing tags:

    [/awkward] (Replacing [] with less-than and greater-than)

    In at least one forum I visited the convention had become:


    which I suppose may have arisen due to the very same problem I encountered writing this comment, namely poorly-coded forum/blog software stripping out anything contained within less-than/greater-thans (probably thanks to someone using PHP's strip_tags() on input or output without thought for non-HTML uses of those symbols – half-arsed filtering/validation like that is something of a pet peeve of mine, as a web developer).

  11. --bill said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:03 pm


    My post above was supposed to include left and right angled brackets, but apparently they get invisibled when posting. So, C has
    (left angled bracket) #include(studio.h) (right angled bracket)
    at the beginning of many programs.
    In 1993 there's a:
    (left angled bracket) #include(newsfood.h) (right angled bracket)
    I wonder if this usage was common in the C community.

  12. Aaron Helton said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    I'm not sure the IRC example of @ really qualifies. In IRC, @ was the channel operator symbol. Mind you, it's now been some 10 years since I have been truly active on IRC (though I've stopped in now and again in the intervening time), so some things could have changed.

    I suppose in a general sense, # could be traced to IRC. It was, if I recall, how you denoted a channel name. Is that the same thing, though?

  13. Emily said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    This isn't just a Twitter fad– while I can't recall anything specific enough to track down examples, I've seen it on a few tumblr blogs (tumblogs?).

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    There are a lot of internet-era cultural streams converging here. For instance, the /awkward thing noted above may come from faux-HTML, but it's also influenced by the MUD syntax of /me does X (which would render as "rodii does X" or whatever. I used to often see that used outside MUDs (things like "/me is sad" in chat conversations, or just "/sad"). I've also seen Perl-style $me$ and C-style #me used. Then there's the * * syntax for action ("*jumps for joy*"), and in the nerdier corners of the net, Perl-style variables are common ("Install $PROGRAM$ on $PLATFORM$ and log on"). Enough of this and there gets to be a pretty flexible and productive culture associated with punctuation. To me it seems healthily lively and creative, a sign of a living culture. I'm not sure why it would be irritating, and even if so, #firstworldproblems.

  15. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    The use of the @user notation is different on Twitter and elsewhere, in my experience (and usage, for that matter). In Twitter use, @ simply indicates "the next token is a username" and integrates with searches and other parts of the user interface. In blog-comment-land, it's simply an indication that one is replying to a specific previous comment on a blog that doesn't have threaded comments enabled (it's not quite "poor man's threading" since it doesn't provide disambiguation). But I have seen some of the Twitter convention leak out into blogland lately, so perhaps as these cultures become more integrated the distinction will disappear.

  16. the other Mark P said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    One of the things Biddle gets wrong is the idea that it is easy to transmit emotional states in electronic communication:

    Why write something excitedly when you can lazily throw in #excited?

    Why? Because the alternatives are more puerile. I can write "I'm soooooo excited", or "I'm #@$% excited" or similar. Is that really better?

    And the concept of transmitting irony, sarcasm or scorn successfully in 140 characters is ridiculous. Those little "tics", as he calls them, are tremendously useful at distinguishing the otherwise impossible.

    — I'm so excited /sarcasm
    — I'm so excited #excited
    are very, very different.

    I challenge Biddle to find an alternative that even remotely works to distinguish straight, from ironic, from sarcastic, from humorous in the reasonable length of a Facebook status. Remember, this has to be achievable by semi-literate and excitable 13 year olds too, not just grumpy old men who write for a living.

  17. Benjamin said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    I apologize if someone has pointed this out already but one simple reason that hashtags show up on facebook is that some people aggregate their social media accounts. Those who are active on twitter but rarely check facebook don't always realize how their tweets look as FB statuses.

  18. Sissyphus said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    You can see it creep bizarrely out of it's mission here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2O4FisQbKw when federal NDP leader Jack Layton uses it in the federal leader's debate in the last Canadian election.

  19. Rod Johnson said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    Sam B. seems to completely misunderstand #winning.

  20. Tony said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    Not that it's entirely pertinent to the conversation, but it's not accurate to say Facebook has no character limits. They do, they're just much longer than Twitter's 140-character limit. Also, I'm pretty sure @ and # came from IRC culture. I know they were innovated by early Twitter users and then later adopted by the service.

  21. John said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    One use of the hashtag which seems a rather obvious segue from "topic marking" to "in joke" is ironic topic marking. "Sarah Palin for President? I'd rather have a moose" works perfectly well as a joke, but "Sarah Palin for President? #Idratherhaveamoose" plays with the idea that this is a common human experience that there might actually be a thread for..

  22. Robin said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

    I've seen non-Twitter hashtags not just as final asides but also as non-omissible parts of a sentence (e.g. "I'm stuck being single and #foreveralone") or even as entire utterances (e.g. replying to a comment with "#gurl" and nothing else).

  23. Chris Helzer said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

    See here for Ryan North's deployment of this usage.

  24. Martin Keegan said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

    # has been used for grouping messages on IRC since at least 1992, and probably since the first two servers were connected to each other a few years earlier.

    Here's a log of #election from 1992:


    The internet standards documents for IRC, such as RFC1459, issued in 1993, even have a grammar rule for the format of an IRC channel name:

    ::= ('#' | '&')

    Hashtags and Channels aren't the same, but they're broadly analogous, and I've never been comfortable with the idea that they're totally unrelated historically.

  25. Martin Keegan said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    (Ok, so the previous post was garbled. Should have read

    <channel> ::= ('#' | '&') <chstring>


  26. Tracy said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

    Really, we can't expect English to muddle around in the dark ages forever, cramming its 46 phonemes into a pitiful 26 characters, written on mammoth hide, remaining so woefully, miserably primitive that it doesn't even have determinatives in its orthography, up-hill both ways . . .

  27. Josh Treleaven said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

    @Emily: "…I've seen it on a few tumblr blogs (tumblogs?)"

    the correct usage is "tumblrs". Typing "tumblr blog" is like saying "ATM machine".

  28. jk said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 12:20 am

    Sounds like we need a taxonomy of hashtag uses. A possible beginning:

    Verbal emoticons (as per Orleans) — #excited, #furious, #dancingonthetipsofmytoes. Not only do they, as the other Mark P noted, provide for a wide range of emotions, they express them with more clarity than :> ;/ etc.

    Classification of actions/statements/ideas — #fail, #facepalm, #smh, which spin off of the search/grouping function by mixing emotional content with a meaning along the lines of "this belongs to the class of things that … fail, humiliate me, make me smack my head." (I would argue that the #foreveralone mentioned above falls into this category — the person is not just saying that s/he will be forever alone, but that s/he is now part of a community of the lonely.)

    Indication of vocal emphasis — #gurl, as a one-word tweet, should probably be read as GUUUURLLLL! (In a like manner, in forums where boldface or italic are not available, users often use asterisks to indicate the really *important* words.)

    W.C. Field mutter — #iwouldratherhaveamoose, for example, is the type of thing you might say out of the side of your mouth. Using the # convention of no spaces between the letters both adds a visual allegory to the mutter and separates it, as a commentary, from the rest of the tweet.

    All of these are less like an abbreviation fad and more like a natural reaction to a shift of dialogue from oral to text format. Written letters got along without such things (mostly) because they were really an exchange of monologues. But today's text communication has a much faster back-and-forth. That, even without Twitter and Facebook character limits, encourages shorter messages. These become more like speech, and users naturally seek out ways to add the same kind of extra information they can provide when speaking by facial expression, tone of voice, etc.

    Finally, the Reddit complaint cited at the start of this post doesn't fit the rest of the conversation. As others above have noted, the frequent appearance of hashtags in Facebook is most likely a result of the crossposting programs.

  29. Dan Hemmens said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    One of the things Biddle gets wrong is the idea that it is easy to transmit emotional states in electronic communication:

    I suspect that Biddle is (falsely and absurdly) suggesting that writing "#excited" is a lazy substitute for subtly conveying your excitement through the structure of your prose.

    This seems to be an issue of translating the "show don't tell" maxim which people overapply to long-form fiction, and overapplying it yet further to person-to-person communication.

    I wonder if, in conversation, you told Mr Biddle that you were feeling sad about something, he'd tell you that you shouldn't just lazily *say* you were sad but should *convey sadness through your speech*.

  30. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    […] Language Log, Mark Liberman delved into hashtags, while Geoff Pullum considered the Scottish word, wee. Victor Mair was warned by some spotty […]

  31. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    – The /me command mentioned by Rod was also used that way in IRC by many. It even works in some modern software like Google Talk.
    – fark.com's "slashies" often piled like hashtags /likethis //alsomultiple ///andsoon
    – I've seen people add "stage directions" between brackets [] in online conversations.

  32. Rehashing Hashtag Bashing, And Why Logic Still Matters On The Web | Edmonton Journal said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    […] in my defense of the poor creature. And in fact, there is plenty of strong, collected rebuttal elsewhere on the Internet explaining why hashtags are not the end of civilization as we know it. But […]

  33. IgnatiusJ said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    @ William Ockham #favorite

  34. interrobang said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 2:47 am

    Everything2.org is a community of writers, many of whom have been using links (more legibly, their tooltips) as that form of commentary on one's own writing. (I've always called that the chorus, after Greek theater.)

  35. Rich Cheng said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    @Martin Keegan: Hashtags and IRC channels are definitely related historically: Just read Chris Messina's follow-up blog post to his original tweet where he states he borrowed the idea of using # in twitter from IRC.

    It should be reiterated, though, that what he suggests for Twitter is different from an IRC channel, and the use of hashtags as described above is different again.

    @interrobang: Good point! I'd agree that e2's use of links is essentially the same thing.

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    […] den Gegenstand des Tweets, etwa #happy, #fail, #wtf oder #iwouldratherhaveamoose. Dieser Typ wird in einem Language-Log-Artikel, insbesondere in jk’s Kommentar, sowie im New Yorker ausführlicher auseinandergenommen. Er ist […]

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