It’s the 10th anniversary of the #hashtag! One hashtag trending as I write this is “#WednesdayWisdom.” Let’s check it out:
What… the fuck? What the fuck is this. Please stop. You are not communicating. These tweets are cancer. You have taken two perfectly good words — “Wednesday” and “wisdom” — and made them meaningless. And I’m not sure that wasn’t the point.
Should we talk about the history of the hashtag? Okay, but it’s boring. Basically, in 2007, this guy Chris Messina proposed using the pound sign to group related tweets. The dudes at Twitter were like “whatever.” Chris just went ahead and started doing it.
“BarCamp” is a thing Chris co-founded, so in a way, he also invented the promoted tweet. As mentioned, the company didn’t give a shit; nevertheless, other users followed his lead, and by 2009, Twitter was hyperlinking hashtags to search results for those terms. In 2010, they debuted “Trending Topics,” which include hashtags to this day.
I’ll admit that some hashtags are good. Check out #BlackLivesMatter, that’s a good hashtag — when it’s not swarmed by Nazi trolls, I mean. Ditto #YesAllWomen. For a specific subset of social movements, hashtags work. This was especially true during 2011’s Arab Spring, when Twitter was celebrated for facilitating a grassroots democratic movement that included millions of hashtags, and during protests in Ferguson. Elsewhere, they are hot trash. Often they link to unrelated content. It is so, so stupid.
You can even gauge the quality of a Twitter conversation by whether it gets a hashtag or not. Above, you’ll notice that “Taylor Swift” is a standalone subject, because folks are tweeting a range of takes about her upcoming album. Meanwhile, “#RobertLee” is hashtagged because it’s 12 idiots howling into the void about ESPN pulling a football announcer from a UVA game for having the same name as a Confederate general. This is a fundamental rule of hashtag culture: If you’re desperate to be seen by any stranger bored enough to click on a hashtag, you slap hashtags on everything.
But wait, there’s more! Hashtags aren’t just for corporations, regional conferences, fake holidays, bad advice, and the political screeching of people obsessed with “triggering SJWs.” They’re also where comedy goes to die a horrible death via strangulation.
Look, I realize not much is guaranteed in life. But I can assure you that exploring hashtags along the lines of #MakeABandGerman or #WhyImSingle is the path to insanity and despair. It’s like being stuck on a gigantic email chain that began when your senile aunt forwarded a racist Obama meme to everyone in her address book. It’s literally only amusing when somebody uses the hashtag for an unrelated running joke.
And yet the hashtag is unlikely to fade away. Because it mediates content across digital platforms, it now defines a style of rap, it’s a recognizable hand signal, and you need to create one for your wedding for some reason. As a free-floating symbol, it conveys themes of connection, order, and synchronicity — fittingly, everything it fails to achieve in practice. Hashtags are useful if you want to lie about not using an Instagram filter or you’re afraid people won’t know what TV show you’re talking about when you drop names like “Cersei” and “Littlefinger,” but beyond that, their function is sorely limited. They are a crutch for those whose main ambition is to take up virtual space.
Academics may claim that hashtags “contribute to relevance by adding a layer of activation to certain contextual assumptions and thus guiding the reader’s inferential processes,” but as a person on Twitter every goddamn day, I’m here to tell you: No they don’t. The world of hashtags is a flat and hopeless wasteland. Feel free to @ me.