SignPost: Hacking Type: #!(:

If you have looked at anything related to social media in the last few years you will certainly be familiar with the tagging performed with the hash symbol or, as it now known, the #hashtag. I have been fascinated with this recently as the use of the hashtag has been morphing from utility to play and lately toward pure humor.

I learned from Wikipedia that hashtagging was used over 30 years ago as a way to label groups and comments in Internet Relay Chats. The Twitter community actually borrowed and mainstreamed the 30-year-old punctuation trick, which has taken off and appears in use across social media

As it grew in popularity, the hashtag started being used to create or track memes. When Twitter started reporting on trending topics, tweeters enjoyed jumping into the mix of topics, whether contrived or based on real subjects or events. #FML was always a fun one to peruse the hilariously unfortunate circumstances of people needing to share misfortune. #firstworldproblems is another that was a sort of ironic looking-glass container for self-aware tweeters to admit that their misfortune may be tainted with a high degree of fortune. Good fun.

What is most interesting is the latest change in the journey of the hashtag. The hashtag is now being used to capture phrases that do not appear to be intended to indicate a catch-all category or to either start or join a meme. Instead, the goal seems to be to capture a concept that is somehow bigger than the string of words—typed out in tradition form—could express. For example, I saw #401sucksintherain as a stand-alone observation of the traffic one day. Another was #donttellmyorthodontist in a riveting tweet from a teen who forgot to wear her retainer one night.

Is there a gestalt to these hashtags, or some greater meaning that is achieved with this inventive form of expression? When I ask, the question is usually confusing. But when I’ve probed, it turns out that the purpose is simply just to be funny.

So, the hashtag has become a form of expression! It appears to now be a domain-specific punctuation form that adds emphasis, irony, humor. It’s a hack on our punctuation and to our language.

Hacking punctuation is not really a new thing. Emoticons are perhaps the most familiar form of type hacking that turned our type into expression. Of course, some systems do us the “favor” of smartly correcting our emoticons into rendered happy faces that totally ditch the charm of the original. (The hack on that hack is to reverse your emoticon (: so the auto correct doesn’t catch you and help you try to emote while you write.) Notice the use of quotation marks around “favor”? It’s mainstream to hack the use of quotes to denote sarcasm.

Its stands to debate whether this redesign of written form is a good or a bad thing. I loved how Anne Trubek exclaimed in Wired magazine last February that “our obsession with proper spelling is a vestige of the Gutenberg era. Its tyme 2 let luce.” Controversy always follows progress, so we will have to wait and see. F. Scott Fitzgerald, taking offence to the liberal use of punctuation, once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Will the hashtag escape the bounds of social media and appear in general use? Should it? Maybe it’s just the next exclamation point? We just needed a new way to #laughatourownjokes.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Summer 2012
Subscribe at www.idsa.org/innovation

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