Hashtags and the Semantics of Interactive Language


Within some Twitter clients the # is a punctuation mark that makes a word interactive. Would the interactivity of the hashtag influence its use? I will argue that the formal semantics of hashtags are determined by the interactivity that is implemented in the Twitter client, but there are also many pragmatic (social) uses that are (necessarily) more loosely connected with hashtag interactivity. It is this loose connection that makes hashtags an enrichment rather than a pollution of our (Twitter) language.

The use of hashtags in Twitter was invented in August 2007 by Chris Messina, proposing to use it for “groups”.  Hashtags got widely adopted during the San Diego forest fires, where Messina encouraged citizens journalist to use #sandiegofire to coordinate their efforts. Now hashtags are everywhere, or at least in 11-15% of the tweets. You might also find hashtags in status update fields of other social media such as facebook or linked in because users have linked Twitter to those media. Possibly, hashtag use may spread even further. A search on Twitter shows many reports of people using hashtags (accidently) in chat and in e-mails.

Hashtags may be popular because they solve a limitation of Twitter in a very flexible way. The problem is that you cannot send a tweet to a group of people that is different than your audience. In the case of the San Diego Fire you would want to reach other citizen journalists that are not necessarily your followers, or you might want to use it to allow people to follow only your tweets about a particular topic (#socialmediaclass starts one hour later). So the nominal use then is to indicate a ‘topic’ which also loosely defines a ‘group’. It turns out to be a fairly powerful means to create ad-hoc connections between people.

This nominal use is supported by hashtag interactivity, although it depends somewhat on your Twitter client how this is implemented. On the Twitter home page, for example, hashtags are clickable hyperlinks that send you to Twitter search giving you recent tweets containing the tag. Clients like Tweetdeck and Houtsuite can create column for a hashtag allowing you to ‘follow a tag’. I believe that the semantics of these two solutions are quite different. When using Twitter search, hashtags are much more regarded as topic denominators, while in the case of following a hashtag is more treated as a group denominator. You might be satisfied to find some tweets about the #worldcup2010 and miss out on most of what is said (topic), but you do not want to miss any tweet from the group using #edsbachelorparty – provided you are in that group, a party is what you are preparing, and Ed happens not to use social media.

The pragmatic use of hashtags has drifted away from the formal semantics that are embedded in hashtag interactivity quite a lot. A recent New Yorker post, Susan Orlean discusses some alternative uses of hashtags. On alternative use Susan Olean mentions is the hashtag as a commentary on the rest of the tweet: “This is an example tweet #andotherwaystosaynothing”. Orlean rightly observes that you would not search for #andotherwaystosaynothing, so it is a break with the formal semantics of hashtags. Rather than using the interactivity of hashtags the #andotherwaystosaynothing is a commentary on hashtag use. A part of the expressive power of the #andotherwaystosaynothing comes from its interactivity. Possibly expressing something like: ‘wouldn’t it be cool if people searched for this tag (and found this tweet)’. Another alternative use is the use as meme. A meme is an idea you would like to catch on. Meme tweeting could start with hashtags like #thedayoffacts, #letstalkaboutsex or #tautologytweeting. The idea behind using these hashtag is that they ‘catch’ on, others start using them. Once this happens, you can use hashtags as normal. In a way meme hashtags say ‘lets play a game with the hashtag interactivity’.

While it is possible to relate alternative hashtag uses to their interactivity, hashtag use has drifted away from their original use a lot. Hashtags are now both tool and language. Hashtags can be in the way of the legibility of tweets, they can be annoying when overused and they certainly give a geeky feel to Twitter for outsiders. Originally Twitter did not like hashtags, and possibly Twitter Annotations is introduced as an alternative. But I feel that, with their combination functional and linguistic properties, hashtags are an innovation we should cherish and use artfully.


2 Responses to “Hashtags and the Semantics of Interactive Language”

  1. 1 Weekly round-up (Vol. 63) | Bluewire Media Web Design Blog
  2. 2 Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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