Hashtag Takeover

I’m sure by now, most of you would have seen the “#Hashtag” sketch by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. If you haven’t had the pleasure of doing so, here it is:

The video is clearly mocking the way people tend to excessively use hashtags on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter by taking it a step further and emulating them in actual face-to-face conversation.  What I like about this video is that by using the hashtags in conversation and showing people how ridiculous they sound out loud, it forces the viewer to recognize the fact that they probably sound just as ridiculous when someone reads them in a tweet or on Instagram.  It brings the issue of the online self versus offline self world, front and center.

People who caption a picture with “Great day! #beauty #love #morning #citylife #nature #thatsuntho” probably did not and would not say those things out loud. Which brings the question: If you wouldn’t do it in person, why would you do it online? and this is pretty much what I imagine the previous video is trying to get at.

I believe that answer would come down to self-representation. Maybe they want to add context to whatever it is they posted in order to show their friends and followers that they can be ‘deep’ or that what they posted has an extended meaning, and a simple sentence won’t do that but a random hashtag will. Maybe they think hashtags are the ‘cool’ thing to do on social media and so they’re trying to show just how ‘cool’ they are.  Another reason for the excessive use of hashtags would probably be that the user is trying to join a community or extend their reach; possibly both.

In Personal Connections of the Digital Age, Nancy Baym talks about how emoticons came about from the “uses of punctuation to illustrate feeling” and that while they “have not entirely solved the problem,” “they have helped” (60).  Is it fair to say that hashtags may be the textual emoticons, relaying meaning and context rather than illustrating? I mean it’s quite possible that a person may update their status as, “Just got off work, time to start the weekend! #excited” rather than, “Just got off work, time to start the weekend! :D”  Hashtags may very well be the new emoticons, just with a slightly different function. It allows users to express something they otherwise couldn’t have, just as emoticons allow users to illustrate their feelings. In other words, both originated out of the lack of social cues in the online world.

And let’s not forget about the spam of emoticons many of us were subjected to, and probably subjected other people to, especially when emoticon apps were released for smartphones:

Pretty similar to the spam of hashtags we are occasionally victim to, except cute smiley faces don’t function as a way to extend one’s reach as tags do.  Many people tend to overload their posts with tags, especially on Instagram, in hopes of reaching a larger audience and gaining new followers or just getting more ‘likes.’

Sometimes they’re relevant:


And sometimes they’re not:


I usually find that the more relevant the tags are, the more likely that user is trying to gain access into a ‘community.’ Let’s take the previous puppy account, for example. Many of the tags have to with Golden Doodles, and if one were to click on #goldendoodlesofinstagram, they would find about 27,500 other dog posts with the same tag, showing there is indeed a community for Golden Doodle owners.

Posts with irrelevant tags are clearly just looking for more likes, followers, and just more attention in general. Prime example of the narcissistic social media user.

Those users who tend to use excessive tags just to gain more followers and likes I think would have the most experience with an issue described by Jonathan Donath in Sociable Media, where users are trading quality of ties for quantity of ties. In the text, Donath states that we are “in touch with more people, but we have fewer cues with which to remember them.” In this case, he was speaking in cases where virtual interaction with a person may include email exchanges or discussion boards, both consisting of much more interaction with a person than just tagging and clicking a follow or like button. I believe using hashtags as a means to increase ones reach almost completely eradicates the cues to remember the people we gain connections with; users may get to a point where they don’t even know they have a connection with a person on a social media site, mainly because there is no meaning associated with the act of connecting in this case except clicking a button.  If one were to gain connections through hashtags with relevance, such as the Golden Doodle example, it is more likely that the people connecting have a common interest that brought them together.

In Sociality through Social Network Sites, Nicole Ellison and Danah Boyd discuss context collapse in relation to ties and relations, as a result of having connections with many people “representing a range of contexts” and having them come together in which it is easy for contexts to get lost or deformed. Context Collapse can also be used in relation to hashtags.  I think it’s important to note that the hashtags intended purpose was to mark conversations relating to a specific topic or group which soon escalated with Twitter allowing users to search through hashtags and join or ‘eavesdrop’ in on conversations with people they probably otherwise wouldn’t have.  While conversations still occur with hashtags, the excessive use of them has started to diminish the original meaning behind hashtags and has changed their image from community conversation to annoying social media habit that must go.


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