In Defense of the Hashtag

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For a website that only deals in tiny posts — 140 characters, to be exact — Twitter has managed to step on some pretty big toes: the entire French language, if France’s Academie Francaise is to be believed. In an effort to keep the English-language term from contaminating the mother tongue, the government agency has ruled that French citizens are to be discouraged from using the term and ought to replace it with “mot-diese” (which, as many users have already pointed out, ironically doesn’t work as a hashtag because it contains a punctuation mark). But that’s not the only reason why the hashtag is worth preserving. Read on for an ode to the symbol that revolutionized microblogging and its myriad uses.

It Does Exactly What It’s Supposed to Do

The idea behind the hashtag, and why it’s also been adopted by those other microblogging giant, Tumblr and Instagram, is to group posts together by topic. And for blogging traditionalists, especially members of the media, it’s tremendously helpful for tracking discussions or real-time events. So as cheesy and cliched it is to say that the hashtag “creates a collective experience,” that didn’t stop me from paying more attention to my computer screen than the television during the presidential debates. And the inauguration. And the Golden Globes. It’s like a hyper-accurate version of Google, but for finding out what the world thinks about Beyoncé-gate instead of why your cat’s barfing green.

It’s a Perfect Way to Express Ironic Detachment

If there’s one thing Generation Y loves more than social media, it’s a liberal use of irony; how else to explain the sudden popularity of handlebar mustaches, seapunk, and Urban Outfitters? It’s no surprise, then, that the hashtag has been hijacked: it’s not just a way to express genuine interest, but also an over-it-but-in-on-the-joke ethos that makes up a good percentage of Twitter humor. Perhaps the high priest of ironic hashtagging is Rob Delaney, the hilarious comedian who regularly sends out missives like “I’m a total #DILF! (dad, and I’d like 2 f*ck!) #cool dad# # naughty” to his three quarters of a million followers. It’s an entire subgenre of comedy that exists entirely online, and another reason why the hashtag deserves some (unironic) respect.

It Spreads the Meme Love

Once upon a time, viral humor was limited to jokes that started with “Knock, knock” and “Your mom’s so…” But this is the 21st century, and thanks to the Internet hive mind, helped along by Twitter’s “Trending Topics” feature, the hashtag has become a hub for meme humor. Whether it’s more topical, like the excellent #muslimrage backlash to the controversial Newsweek cover story, or completely random, like #ReplaceMovieTitleWithGoat, meme humor and the hashtag are made for each other. It also helps that it’s more aesthetically pleasing than Tumblr’s ubiquitous Bachelor Frog.

It Turns Random Sentence Fragments Into Witty Commentary

Finally, the hashtag has developed into a landing stage for stray observations and bits of snark that can’t necessarily be developed into a full-on tweet or Tumblr text post. It’s also a great way to rapidly change tone from serious to sarcastic without wasting precious characters. The result may not be the most practical (it’s unlikely that anyone will ever search Twitter for #gameofthronesisruiningmylife or #aintnopartylikeabatmitzvahparty), but it conveniently allows avid microbloggers to inject personal opinion into an otherwise everyday observation or straightforward retweet. Condensing an entire sentence’s worth of transition into a single octothorpe, the hashtag makes the case for brevity one tweet at a time.

Love it? Hate it? Share your thoughts on the hashtag in the comments below.