How #hashtags changed the way we talk

Brandon Ancier, Head of Growth at TINT offers his thoughts on the ever prevalent #hashtag and how this has not only influenced the personal and professional sphere, but changed it…

Hashtags escaped Twitter and spread, like a plague, to Facebook, to Instagram, to everyday speech.

The hashtag arose in 2007 as a way to categorise and ‘tag’ tweets. It slowly gained traction, until 2009 or 2010 when suddenly hashtags (and their users) went rogue. These errant tweeters took hashtags from their good and purposeful tagging function, and changed them into something terrible – a form of parenthical commentary on the rest of the tweet.

Hashtags escaped Twitter and spread, like a plague, to Facebook, to Instagram, to everyday speech, where it is now acceptable to say things like ‘I love you guys! Hashtag blessed!’

Yup. The hashtag is a linguistic tumour. But do I think hashtags are destroying the English language? No. However, if they’re not destructive, what are they? Here’s what I found:

  • Hashtags are ‘ Paralanguage’ – Paralanguage is something you already use, every day. It’s the non-verbal cues that accompany speech and help us express meaning and tone – shoulder shrugs, intonation, facial expressions. But in the world of text, it is difficult to communicate these non-verbal ideas, such as sarcasm or self-mockery. Hashtags have expanded that ability drastically. When we now complain about tangled headphones and append #firstworldproblems, it shows we know our own complaints are ridiculous. Hashtags are not a tumour – they help us add a much-needed tonal layer to our communications.
  • Hashtags are our Greek Chorus – In 2012, when spoken hashtags were first causin’ a ruckus, New Republic published an article that claimed hashtags were a sign of our modern times – part of a recent trend to see ourselves in the third person. Saying “Hashtag happy” elicits a mental picture of the speaker viewed from a distance, labeled with the word happy. In this framework, hashtags are a way of distancing ourselves from our own words as a commentary on what we’ve just said or experienced, a shift in viewpoint from first person to third person, similar to the narrator of a book or a chorus in a Greek play. Hashtags are serving as a very ancient literary device.
  • Hashtags were always meant to mimic speech – The written word and the spoken word have always influenced each other in their formality. In the past we spoke more formally because of how formally we wrote. In the present, we write less formally because of how informally we speak. Speech and writing influence each other, and always have. The way language trends develop and words become popular IRL (in real life) is mimicked on Twitter. We really are writing how we talk.

What does this mean for language? Well, linguists are pretty much divided. Some say verbal hashtags are a passing fad. Others don’t. But in a recent Mashable article, Linguist Gerard Van Herk argues that Internet speak has made us smarter: “Today’s youth are much more aware of the social and stylistic uses and meanings of different genres and language types, and are able to discuss them using metalinguistic terms like meme,” he writes. Yeah. That’s right. We’re the generation that uses METALINGUISTIC TERMS in everyday speech. Feel brilliant yet? Good.

So, if you’re trying to create a hashtag that will stick, there is at least one lesson we can take from the linguistics: Hashtags that straddle multiple uses (tagging and paralanguage, narrative and the informality of speech) are most likely to be successful.

But a common failure with hashtags? They often only use the tagging function of hashtags – not the metacommentary function, or the paralanguage function. There is an easy litmus test to avoid creating the #corporatehashtagthatnoonewilluseever. Ask yourself: Would you say it in daily speech? Would Justin Timberlake?

The answer should be yes.

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