Even though it has never been as ubiquitous in contemporary culture or modern media as right now, there are some indications out there that we may bear witness to the death of the hashtag in the near future.
For those of you who may not be completely familiar with the concept, the hashtag is a means of linking your online posts with others on the same topic by placing a hashtag or pound sign in front of a word or series of words.
Even if you are not a frequent user of the social networks, you will have seen hashtags used on screen during television broadcasts or used in advertising in magazines and papers, in the hope that people will comment on those programmes or adverts via social media (using the suggested hashtag) which would boost the brand awareness or the ‘conversation’ about their product.
It is this ubiquity that may soon be responsible for the hashtag’s downfall, as it is far too easy to hijack or misappropriate a hashtag for negative or cynical purposes. My first real sense of disillusionment with the concept came last year. I had written an article on the #FF hashtag, and I received the following e-mail in response:
I didn’t know what this was do [sic] once I clicked on the FF tag and it is hyperlink to a FF site that has porno pictures. I then looked up the meaning on the Internet and found the explanation abs [sic] your email address.
You know children could click on that and have their brains assaulted with that filth.
Of course, no individual person and no one social network has proprietary over any one particular hashtag, and that is both its strength and its weakness as a concept. They are owned and controlled by no-one, and therefore are open to use by everyone.
What constitutes as misuse of a hashtag is ultimately a subjective judgement. If a pornographer or a protester adopts a particular hashtag for their own purposes, surely it is the content or the cause that should be subjected to our moral judgement, and not the hashtag itself? And if that content is problematic, it is a problem for the social networks and/or government to police, and not an issue for the hashtag (which is effectively just a form of basic open-source code, when one thinks about it).
When Fallon & Timberlake mercilessly mock the ubiquity of the hashtag, does it mean that we’re at the beginning of its end?
However, widespread misuse and misappropriation of hashtags are problematic as they undermine the concept and stop the conversation. By their own definition, hashtags are meant to link posts that all deal with a similar subject or topic, yet if others en masse are just adding them on randomly to off-topic posts for advertising purposes, where does that leave the conversation? One would hope that the majority of promoted and used hashtags stay on topic (and I am sure many do), but more generic hashtags such as #UK or #SocialMedia are just left open to misuse, either through misunderstanding or cynicism.
The lack of a singular definition of any one hashtag causes confusion in itself. Jon Stock recently wrote in The Telegraph about how the #fgw hashtag used by commuters to complain about a much-maligned train company in the UK had been appropriated by a female Twitter user campaigning for women with small breasts (‘flat girl wins’, apparently). Away from anything that could be misconstrued as text-speak innuendo, I myself was frustrated when I worked in a previous role; the company utilised a technology called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and I very much wanted to use #TMS in our marketing material. Unfortunately, #TMS had already been widely adopted by cricket lovers on social media to refer to the much-loved British radio institution Test Match Special.
Misunderstandings aside, there are other indications that the use of hashtags has peaked. Vivian Schiller, Twitter’s head of news, recently called the hashtag ‘arcane’ and said that Twitter are looking at ways of retaining the underlying functionality of connected posts while doing away with the symbol itself. Meanwhile, Facebook’s adoption of hashtags has been half-hearted and half-baked at best, with social media consultancy Socialbakers recently releasing a report that revealed Facebook posts which featured hashtags had less (rather than more) engagement as a consequence. LinkedIn abandoned hashtags for its network in July 2013.
Even though it might seem inconceivable at the time of writing (March 2014) that the hashtag will soon disappear, there is plenty of evidence out there that hashtag usage is now at its zenith and that the only way for it to go is downwards. Given that hashtags do not connect conversations across multiple social networks (only on the network that they are used), and that there are some jitters about Twitter’s longer-term commercial prospects, there’s a sense underpin that hashtags’ ongoing usage is not a guaranteed thing.
Anyone claiming the imminent demise of the hashtag would be foolish, but equally it would be stupid to blithely assume that they’re still going to be in common use come 2020 (to take a future year at random). As technology evolves and communication sensibilities change, so will the content and the techniques of our social media exchanges, and the resulting death of the hashtag is not inconceivable.