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The pound sign is a typographical symbol with ambitions. For decades, it was an afterthought on our telephone keypads, mashed occasionally in frustration during prolonged customer-service calls. But lately, it is conquering new territories, visible on our TV screens (#debates, for example, during the most recent presidential debate); at the box office (#holdyourbreath, plugging the title of a recent horror movie); even spray- painted on your favorite football teams’ turf (#GOHOGS at the 25-yard-line in Razorback Stadium).
For this, of course, we can thank Twitter. Five years ago, Twitter’s users invented what’s now known as the hashtag: a pithy phrase, preceded by that hungry octothorpe, used to either label or comment on the preceding tweet. (Pretend this sentence is a tweet. #thiswouldbethehashtag.)
In the early days, hashtags were primarily functional — a way of categorizing tweets by topic so that members of the Twittersphere could follow conversations of interest to them by searching for a list of similarly tagged tweets. The first hashtag, proposed by the user Chris Messina, was intended to collate conversations about the tech conference BarCamp, so the hashtag was #barcamp. Other tags in the early days served as straightforward metadata, directing people to tweets about news, events and user interests: #sandiegofires, #roseparade, #education and so on.
Over time, though, the hashtag has evolved into something else — a form that allows for humor, darkness, wordplay and, yes, even poetry. During this same period, Twitter as a corporation recognized the power of the hashtag, which has now become a part of the site’s design, lingo and sales pitch to advertisers. Your particular hashtag, for example, can let the whole world know who’s talking about the release of #Halo4.
As a result, we’ve arrived at a strange moment for the hashtag. The people at Twitter are fond of saying that the hashtag is the new URL — and it’s true that you’re just as likely to see the former as the latter these days on-screen at the end of a movie trailer.
Yet the rise of the hashtag’s commercial possibilities shouldn’t lead us to overlook what is truly remarkable about it. This bit of utilitarian Webephemera, invented with functionality squarely in mind, has blossomed into a marvelous and underappreciated literary device.
For anyone who has been irked by the more irritating examples in circulation — #awkward, #winning and #fail all come to mind — these literary pretensions may sound lofty. You’re unlikely to spot much wordplay in the “trending topics” highlighted on Twitter, where the hashtags tend to be event-driven: #Steelers, #Halloween, #WalkingDead. Occasionally you’ll also see a form known as “the Mad Lib hashtag”: Trending topics like #IWannaKnowWhy or #willgetyouslapped, which are basically punch lines in search of crowd-sourced setups. These hashtags tend to generate a ton of response, turning Twitter into a giant slumber-party game, where half the guests get a little too earnest (#Iwannaknowwhy my boyfriend doesn’t love me) and half just make class-clown cracks (#IWannaKnowWhy girls actually want boyfriends. . . . Trust me, they suck).
But the hashtag, for the dexterous user, is a versatile tool — one that can be deployed in a host of linguistically complex ways. In addition to serving as metadata (#whatthetweetisabout), the hashtag gives the writer the opportunity to comment on his own emotional state, to sarcastically undercut his own tweet, to construct an extra layer of irony, to offer a flash of evocative imagery or to deliver metaphors with striking economy. It’s a device that allows the best writers to operate in multiple registers at once, in a compressed space. It’s the Tuvan throat singing of the Internet.
The resulting juxtapositions can be spare, goofy, poignant or elegant. Consider Conan O’Brien: “Have you ever noticed that you never see me and Ryan Gosling in the same room at the same time? #gullibleladiespleaseread.” Or the theater critic Jesse Oxfeld: “Oh, you know, standing in front of Whole Foods, on the phone with Mom, answering her question about how to spell Holocaust. #nevermisspell.” Or the writer Susan Orlean: “My 7 yo has taken to calling me ‘Lady,’ as in, ‘What’s for dinner, lady?’ #wheredidigowrong.”
These constructions all tend toward the particular — a sardonic twist to the tweet. But the hashtag can also be a joke about itself, as when the HBO wunderkind Lena Dunham tweets, “What’s my place in it all? #questionsevenmymomcantanswer.” Part of the joke is that her hashtag is so elaborate, so concatenated, that no one else wouldever conceive of using it. It’s a metajoke about metadata — a bit like setting up an entire hanging file just to store a single Post-it.
The hashtag ethos has also been adopted beyond Twitter. Noted Twitterer Kanye West popularized the phrase “hashtag rap” a few years ago, to describe a hip-hop rhyme scheme that’s been around longer than Twitter but echoes the way the hashtag compresses comparisons. In his 2009 hit “Forever,” the rapper Drake sings, “Swimming in the money, come and find me — Nemo/If I was at the club you know I balled — chemo.” If the metaphor serves to dispense with the simile’s “like” or “as” — “Your face is a summer’s day” rather than “Your face is like a summer’s day” — then the hashtag strips the line down even further: “Your face. #summerday.”
There has been some debate among musicians and critics about whether such hip-hop rhymes constitute cheating. But these critiques are absurd. A rhyme can be inane or inspired, whatever semantic relation it bears to the line it concludes. In fact, it’s the way the hashtag loosens those old semantic strictures that makes the form so appealing to wordsmiths. A poet friend of mine noted that, because of possibilities afforded by the hashtag, writing tweets “feels compositionally very akin to poetry. . . . You’re suspending things in relation to one another in an extremely complex form.”
The hashtag seems to her a distant cousin of the refrain: a phrase that relates in different, complex ways — direct or tangential, ironic or nonsensical — to the lines it follows. It also has something in common with parentheses, explaining or qualifying whatever phrase it interrupts. And where it captures the author’s mood or aspect, it resembles the epithet, the “white-armed Nausicaas” and “wine-dark seas” that populate the “Odyssey.” Yet the hashtag may well be a new rhetorical device in its own right. In the literary glossary that ranges from antimetabole to zeugma, there’s no term that exactly captures all that the hashtag is capable of.
Consider the power that mass media still retain over the Twitterverse. When an earthquake struck Virginia in 2011, Twitter had a tremendous spike in tweets that mentioned “earthquake”: 15,000 in the first two minutes. But Mother Nature has nothing on the N.B.A. During this year’s slam-dunk contest, the organizers asked viewers to vote for the best dunks using the hashtag #spriteslam. The term was tweeted 50,000 times in two minutes after it first appeared on-screen.
This, we might argue, is the dark side of the hashtag. TV shows now post hashtags after buzzworthy events: When the “New Girl” character Schmidt thought he might have impregnated his girlfriend, FOX slammed the hashtag #schmidtbaby on-screen. Before long, it was trending. The late, lamented Washington Nationals pushed #natitude this season; a friend reports seeing a Nats fan at a game who, after observing a home run, dutifully tapped the hashtag out on his phone and tweeted it into the wild. Even our president (or whoever tweets for him) has gotten in on the game, nudging #Romnesia to the top of the charts as his account encouraged supporters to tweet jokes about Mitt Romney “forgetting” previous — and contrary — positions.
As marketers and media figures get cannier about using hashtags, their efforts may choke out the more organic “indie” hashtags. And there will be a disincentive for the cleverest minds of Twitter to continue to experiment with them as a form. At a certain point, appending a hashtag to a post might simply make it look like an ad. (There were recent reports of a TV show to be called “#Resistance” — complete with hashtag — which seems like a bald attempt to hop the latest social media bandwagon.) But the potential for this kind of abuse is all the more reason to advocate for and embrace the hashtag’s literary possibilities.
Scholars have not yet given much attention to the linguistics of the hashtag. Studies have tended to focus on network theory, the diffusion of information and the adoption of trends. So a hashtag that is not picked up by more than one user, that doesn’t spread, will most likely be considered a failure by computer scientists.
Similarly, academics have studied sentiment identification — whether you can teach a machine to identify sarcasm or other emotions in tweets. Usefully, the academy has also produced several studies of how Twitter is used at academic conferences. But scholars have not yet given these outlier hashtags a close read as a literary phenomenon. As a result, the finest examples of creative hashtaggery — the most singular instances of linguistic brilliance — are often undiscovered or unnoticed gems.
So we must fight to nurture this fledgling art form. For one thing, there is some evidence that user-generated hashtags can shape the conversation from the ground up. After the second presidential debate, many TV pundits remarked on the instant popularity of #bindersfullofwomen, which Anderson Cooper called a “hot Twitter hashtag” on air.
The good news, according to Twitter, is that our use of hashtags isn’t diminishing. Their appearances are up since 2009 — the pound sign flexing its muscles — and about 1 in 8 tweets bears a hashtag. More interesting, the average number of tweets per hashtag has remained consistent, even as corporate hashtagging is on the rise. As the most popular hashtags are appended to tens of thousands of tweets, there are still as many hashtags affixed to only one tweet as there have ever been. These are the hashtags we must celebrate. The poets and wags of Twitter are still out there. The art form persists. We just have to venture forth and find it, exploit it and perfect it. #Letathousandhashtagsbloom.