Friday, December 30, 2011


Earlier this week Sam Biddle of Gizmodo published How the Hashtag Is Ruining the English Language, decrying the use of hashtags to add additional color or meaning to text. Quoth the article, "The hashtag is a vulgar crutch, a lazy reach for substance in the personal void – written clipart." #getoffhislawn

Written communication has never been as effective as in-person conversation, nor even as simple audio via telephone. Presented with plain text, we lack a huge array of additional channels for meaning: posture, facial expression, tone, cadence, gestures, etc. Smileys can be seen as an early attempt to add emotional context to online communication, albeit a limited one. #deathtosmileys

Yet language evolves to suit our needs and to fit advances communications technology. A specific example: in the US we commonly say "Hello" as a greeting. Its considered polite, and it has always been the common practice... except that it hasn't. The greeting Hello entered the English language in the mid 19th century with the invention of the telephone. The custom until that time of speaking only after a proper introduction simply didn't work on the telephone, it wasn't practical over the distances involved to coordinate so many people. Use of Hello spread from the telephone into all areas of interaction. I suspect there were people at the time who bemoaned and berated the verbal crutch of the "hello" as they watched it push aside the more finely crafted greetings of the time. #getofftheirlawn

So now we have hashtags. Spawned by the space-constrained medium of the tweet, they are now spreading to other written forms. That they find traction in longer form media is an indication that they fill a need. They supply context, overlay emotional meaning, and convey intent, all lacking in current practice. Its easy to label hashtags as lazy or somehow vulgar. "[W]hy the need for metadata when regular words have been working so well?" questions the Gizmodo piece. Yet the sad reality is that regular words haven't been working so well. Even in the spoken word there is an enormous difference between oratory and casual conversation. A moving speech, filled with meaning in every phrase, takes a long time to prepare and rehearse. Its a rare event, not the norm day to day. The same holds true in the written word. "I apologize that this letter is so long - I lacked the time to make it short." quipped Blaise Pascal in the 17th century.


Gizmodo even elicited a response from Noam Chomsky, probably via email, "Don't use Twitter, almost never see it."

What I find most interesting about Chomsky's response is that it so perfectly illustrates the problem which emotive hashtags try to solve: his phrasing is slightly ambiguous. It could be interpreted as Chomsky saying he doesn't use Twitter and so never sees hashtags, or that anyone bothered by hashtags shouldn't use Twitter so they won't see them. He probably means the former, but in an in-person conversation there would be no ambiguity. Facial expression would convey his unfamiliarity with Twitter.

For Chomsky, adding a hashtag would require extra thought and effort which could instead have gone into rewording the sentence. That, I think, is the key. For those to whom hashtags are extra work, it all seems silly and even stupid. For those whose main form of communication is short texts, it doesn't. #getoffmylawntoo