#RedefiningHumanConnection in 140 Characters or Less

Chris Messina’s introduction of the hashtag to Twitter

About six years ago, Chris Messina introduced the hashtag to Twitter as a tool for categorization, unaware of the ubiquity it would soon achieve.

Currently, the list of top ten trending tags in my Twitter homepage (#LazyPhone, #CommunityCentral, #White Chicks to name a few) serves as a cultural indicator, implying that if I use any of these tags I will be able to participate in a conversation of millions. Thus, hashtags go beyond a tool for organizing groups, they signify to users a promise of visibility — a promise dictating that the more hashtags one uses and the more popular they are, the more reach one’s words can achieve. The allure of this promise seems harmless: Now every-day people can use hashtags as channels to talk about themselves and connect with others. However, I believe that hashtags give rise to a behavior that is a personal pet peeve of mine: an abuse and overuse of the hashtag.

Namely, hashtags exacerbate current goals of increasing social media klout. What we tag with our posts has become more significant than the post itself, creating a tendency for people to first and foremost, think of what hashtags they can use to increase their following. Hashtags are the reasons that sites such as http://web.stagram.com/hot/ and http://www.hashtags.org/trending-on-twitter/ exist to tell us the most popular tags, in addition to why posts such as:

I’d like to point out the use of #Instagram on Instagram

and:

#Must #hashtags #be #in-between #words #?

continue to proliferate my news feeds.

I acknowledge that accomplishing fame through social media is empowering, as is exemplified by anthropologist Youtube Star Michael Wesch. But what happens when fame is the end goal? In An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube, Wesch accounts that his Web 2.0 video was able to meet his objective of topping high-budget SuperBowl Ads as the Most Watched Video On Youtube. He attributes his success in large part to tagging or what he refers to as “user-generated organization and distribution.” The ability for users to tag his video, allowed anyone who was searching for certain tags (e.g. Web 2.0) to be linked to his video. Looking more closely at the actual list of tags on his video, however, we find words that have barely anything to do with the content of the video but are instead, used as tools to broaden the size of his audience (Words such as academic, activism, film, fun, future, HOWTO). Irrelevant tagging coupled with Wesch’s habit of constantly “hitting refresh, refresh, refresh,” on the video page to check and increase his viewer count demonstrates a behavior that is symptomatic of our current society’s obsession with audience size.

As we continue to use and overuse hashtags to gain reach we must keep in mind the question posed by Judith Donath:  “Are we replacing stronger ties with weaker ties?

One thing is for sure, hashtags have forever changed the way we connect with one another on social media. Nicole B. Ellison and Danah Boyd note in “Sociality Through Social Network Sites“:

“Initially, SNS ‘Friends lists’ were predominantly reciprocal […] As Twitter grew popular, so did the notion that relationships could be uni-directional, with people following others who did not reciprocate.”

The prominence of these uni-directional relationship allows users to seek as many connections as possible in place of focusing on current ones. Even Facebook, which was designed for reciprocal and bi-directional relationships, has introduced clickable hashtags making them nearly impossible to avoid. Truly, there is “no #stopping hashtags.”

via memegenerator.net

So while people may argue that hashtags are efficient in allowing people to categorize their media and connect with networks of people, they have negative effects on real-world relationships.  For instance, people often forget “hashtagging the experience changes the actual experience.” In offline social settings it is more likely to see heads down, eyes on phones, and fingers typing away the latest trending tags, stringing words together #likethis. Socializing therefore, is no longer about hanging out with friends and instead is about #hangingoutwithfriends in which we try to hit as many likes as possible on each image and word we put out.

“Hashtagging the experience”

What I fear the most, however, is the domestication of hashtags — a point in which, as Nancy Baym phrases it,”life without them can become unimaginable.” Will the future become the #future as hashtags make their way into the offline world? On television, Big Bang Theory has already become #BigBangTheory and The Voice is now, #TheVoice, relying on social media to increase viewership. Not to mention the mother that named her child Hashtag.

Subtle.

To answer Chris Messina’s question posed in 2007: “How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups?“: If the direction that hashtags are taking us is into a world in which we can no longer interact face to face without adding a hashtag to it, then I worry that the only way that I can convey my annoyance is by telling people to #stopusinghashtags.

#nobutseriouslypleasestop

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