My relative isolation from the digital world recently became painfully evident while looking at “PETRIe” an offbeat cultural site on the Internet which deals with various social and cultural domains ranging from fashion to protests. What struck me was a short essay by PETRIe’s feature writer, Elena Stanciu, on “Hashtag Protest.” I had come across both the symbol and the word, but I had never viewed the hashtag as an important developmental aspect of the new media. I was bowled over by her text which I now take the liberty of introducing you to hashtags with a couple of her dense paragraphs:

Digital platforms feed into the structural fragmentation and individualisation of societies today, paradoxically enhancing connectivity and mirroring the spatiality of protest: the public square is now the platform, and groups of activists are now digital enclaves, linked by tracking algorithms. An artefact of this digital culture of protest is the hashtag, which becomes a social movement instrument, ensuring a successful deployment of tangible realities of protest across connective platforms.
As part of last year´s protests against racial injustice and police brutality in the US, the hashtag played a central role in claiming portions of digital space for specific causes, and operating a mirroring of the physical demonstrations, as stand-ins for instances of social injustice, and valid calls for policy change. The epitome of this, #blacklivesmatter transformed the role of the activist digital handle, by pushing a critical re-framing of discourse around the tragedy of extrajudicial violence against black people. By being both inclusive and descriptive of the content it “tags,” the hashtag operates a process of negotiating cultural realities, beyond the mere dissemination and immediate conversion of events. With every reposting, #blacklivesmatter negates the implied “black lives do not matter,” thus attempting to exclude racism as a viable component of social reality.

In this new architecture of symbolic significance, the hashtag would appear to deliver order to the different forms of organized dissent we are currently experiencing. Stanciu goes on to assert that “the hashtag describes, sums up, re-plays, while it simultaneously produces and reproduces new meanings.” Apparently the hashtag now plays a significant part in enhancing the flow of the narrative of events taking place such as the recent women’s global marches on January 21st. She views the hashtag as “bringing order in what would otherwise be indistinguishable clutter.” In doing so Stanciu believes the hashtag is “launching a dialogue between message and medium, content and channel, existing realities and imagined realities.” She quotes two ‘theorists’ in this field, if one can thus describe the experts who, reflecting on hashtags, embrace a logic that “transforms collective action into connective action.”1

Much of this analysis seems forced, artificial and somewhat pretentious to me, but then I am not a #twitterthriller. I will not try to guess where this new format is headed, but the way hashtags have swept the world in just a decade is truly astonishing.

The widespread discursivity of the hashtag apparently extends beyond both time and space. It has become a cultural phenomenon of the new millennium with writers like Stanciu viewing it as “the raw material to be used in the forging of a new order of space, action, and life.” I find such a conclusion rather incredible, but then I come at this as an outsider who finds it hard to understand the power of such perceptions, riddled as they are by confusion, and leaves me scratching my head. I am not alone.

When Melania Trump, shortly after entering the White House, began sharing her hashtag #Powerofthefirstlady confusion reigned as to what it meant. One reader thought it sounded like an advertising tagline for an antiperspirant. Another thought it could be what a teenage girl in an anime cartoon might shout to transform into an adult. What seems evident is that interpreting hashtags could soon be classified as having a professional status. It is now recognized that the # can convey a full range of emotions from sarcasm to humor.

The hash symbol or [called the pound sign in the USA] has grown in meaning since Chris Messina first used it while camping in California in August 2007 for groups, as in #barcamp.2 It was then appropriated by Twitter as a way to categorize messages and rapidly became the principal site for advancing its popularity. An etiquette swiftly arose to prevent the misuse of hashtags: Twitter warned that three hashtags were an “absolute maximum” in any 140 letter conversation and that exceeding that number could cause an account to be suspended. Moreover, a hashtag that is not picked up by another user will be regarded as a failure by the media’s experts. However, hashtgaggery, or the academic or scholarly study of such phenomena, is still in its infancy.

I shall try not to nurture this fledgling art form in this blog, but its spread is phenomenal. Among its highest promoters #realTrumpIsKing. The New York Times closed an amusing entry on the hashtag: “We just have to venture forth and find it, exploit it and perfect it. #Letathousandhashtagsbloom.”3

I have not yet learned how to appreciate the literary pretensions of the hashtag. The wordplay of its “trending topics” which tend to be event driven by punch phrasing which would seem to be searching crowd-sourced setups such as: #christmascheer, #orgasmicclutter, and #robotjobs — all of which could generate a massive response on Twitter. Some hashtags have gained fame in different ways:

  • #jesuischarlie in English #iamcharlie) expressed global solidarity with those who were assassinated in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
  • #OccupyWallStreet became the hashtag of the protesters not only in New York but around the world.
  • The “Tonight Show Hashtags” became among the most tweeted on Twitter which promoted this television program on NBC in the US. It is to be noted here that the television formatted hashtags are used to identify a series being broadcast as well as to measure the immediate response from the viewers to the topical hashtags issued by the presenters. Hashtag “bugs” on the home video screens also are being used in television commercials to promote branded products as well as to gauge the topical reactions of their audiences.
  • Hashtags are also used on social networks like Instagram where users can post a picture and then tag it with a subject. However Instagram can block or censor hashtags which could be linked to illegal activities such as drug use.
  • Ultimately the spoken hashtag can work as a joke, or express complex sarcasm, for example to comment on Donald Trump’s aside to a British reporter at his over-lengthy press conference: #theBBCanotherbeauty.

Perhaps one of these days @, the “at” sign, will enjoy similar popularity as the #- although currently it is mostly restricted to names, addresses and connections. Frankly, as a writer, the dash “–” has always exerted a greater attraction for me. It seems to possess more meanings, embraces a stronger sense of space and time, as well as inspiring a strange metaphysical continuity. Yet another popular social media may arise someday soon – how shall I put it ? –  with dash!

1W.Lance Bennet and Prof. Alexandra Segerberg, The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, (2015)

2Wikipedia gives a brief history of the hashtag

3Julia Turner, “In Praise of the Hashtag,” The New York Times, November 2, 2012 (Magazine section)

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