Hashtags: Can't Live with 'em, Can't Live without 'em

How are humans regulating the internet through hashtags? What kind of algorithms are generating the content in your feeds? Best read Elizabeth Losh's Hashtag.

Elizabeth Losh

Bloomsbury Academic

September 2019


For better and for worse, the internet continues to evolve. It evolves just like people do—and then some more because the internet is a conglomerate of machines just as much as it's an aggregation of people. The biggest evolutionary event in the internet as of late is hashtags. Love them or hate them, they exist and proliferate in ways that are now completely unavoidable.

If you are on the internet, you must achieve some level of hashtag literacy in order to communicate with the other humans on the internet. The internet also does a lot of communicating without any humans, machine to machine, moving data around and filtering it into theoretically utilitarian packages. I wanted to read Elizabeth Losh's Hashtag¸ the latest in Bloomsbury's consistently excellent Object Lessons series, because I wanted to know whatever the kids know—and also what the machines are up to.

Losh has written 12 chapters that amount to four distinct threads of analysis. The first two chapters, #Octothorpe and #Inventor, trace the origin of the hashtag as an object. It arose from a machine's need to categorize and sort information. This is before the internet. Touch-tone telephones actually caused the need for hashtags, and under the auspices of parent corporation AT&T, Bell Labs researched how best to do it. After finally landing on the pound symbol as a visual cue for a little info nugget, they realized that some countries use pounds as a form of currency and therefore, it would not do to refer to the symbol as the pound key. It's confusing.

We then narrowly escaped labelling it an "octothorpe", because scientists get carried away naming stuff sometimes. They are only human. Fast forward many decades to 2006, and voilà: Twitter. The first human to use a hashtag in 2007 did so in order to help his friends form a meet-up to talk about their tech. Nerds.

Humans like to find new ways of reaching out to one another, and they naturally seek easier methods of group formation. In the book's discussion of how hashtags have developed human-to-human communication, there are four chapters: #Person, #Place, #Slogan, and #Brand. In these essays, Losh is operating somewhere between journalism and sociology, charting worldwide examples of the hashtag's success and failure in each of these four arenas. As a means for humans to self-categorize, the hashtag functions as an answer to those well-known journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Think about the labels you see on Twitter. Who: survivors of rape, victims of gun violence, #MeToo, #Trayvon. What: buy this, vote for that, #CancelColbert, #TakeAKnee. When: the weekend, Election Day, #FridayMood, #BowtieTuesday. Where: #Tahrir, #CrimeaIsRussia, #Benghazi. How: #NotInMyName, #JustDoIt, #Occupy. Why: #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, #BlackLivesMatter.

Each of these info nuggets bleeds into multiple categories. Especially when associated with a slogan or a brand, hashtags can also be deployed ironically or otherwise subversively. Think about how a company it's brand. The company wants to showcase its high quality of customer service, with which is name has become synonymous with said quality. But the company is quickly horrified to see people using its preferred hashtag to label incidents that are the exact opposite of high quality customer service.

In the next four chapters, which focus more on machine-to-machine communication, these questions begin to multiply. In #Origin, #Intersection, #Noise, and #Chatter, Losh considers these many complexities. Is there any difference between #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM? Why would a large number of people suddenly begin using #Ferguson and #Gaza in the same set of labels? Is it inappropriate for female scientists to hijack #ManicureMonday to show photos of themselves getting their hands dirty with highly intellectual lab work? Are hashtags for consumer boycotts efficacious, or are they just "slacktivism"?

Our worldwide cultural interest in hashtags stems in part from their mystery and in part from their necessity. At their root, hashtags are the system of metadata we use to categorize literally every single thing on the internet. Think about all the #facts and the #fakenews you've seen. How are humans regulating the internet through hashtags? What kind of algorithms are generating the content in your feeds? It used to be that any ordinary citizen could check out whether Twitter's top stories were properly matched with the most massively trending hashtags of the day. But then real-time analytics start-ups that provided such services were targeted for buy-out by multinational corporations. They quietly shut down shortly thereafter. Is this like stock manipulation?

Ask a librarian: classification is a political undertaking, and it matters enormously for our ability to transmit knowledge to future generations. Think about what would happen if all your tax returns were filed not by the year you sent them in, but by the face of the musician who sang your favorite song each year. That's nuts. Nobody wants a filing system based on such an obscure, subjective sensibility because it's totally unusable. Maybe a machine could sort it out—and futurists indeed predict: sometime soon, machines will be the ones sorting it out.

Losh concludes with a spooky update on McLuhan's notion that the medium is the message. The metadata is now the message. Read Hashtag because hashtags are not going anywhere, so it's in your own best interest to be more literate about them.





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