One morning last week I was putting the final touches to a social media engagement strategy when I stumbled upon this video of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon aptly mocking how the supposed hashtag concept has filtered its way into conversational language.

Have we lost all faith in people’s ability to interpret subtext? Or is that ability on the decline?

As a lover of language and an early adopter of life online I feel I speak from a pretty well-adjusted position when I express my cranky state of mind over the misuse of the humble hashtag.  I’ve been here before, this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a bee in my bonnet over the bastardisation of the written word. An odd position, some say, because as somewhat of an online nerd – I’m well versed in the 1337 and the 403 and have no issue using those languages in the forums that they were designed for. So why is it that I cringe when I see ‘LOL’ in an email, or a Facebook Status, or I get an SMS telling me that you will ‘spk2me l8r’. Have I become the Luddite of the language world, or am I just a committed purist who wants to uphold some separation and the virtues of good language?

Like LOL and L8r before it, the hashtag has become my latest gripe with digital shortcuts creeping into our offline worlds. A hashtag isn’t just an excuse to make a random statement; it’s a tool that helps you discover conversations that you want to join. This is on par with the person who sits opposite you in a bar, makes a joke, pauses, then shrugs and says ‘LOL’. I’m yet to converse with someone who drags the hashtag into reality, but a good friend relayed this exchange to me (look away now if you’re in danger of gastrolexiconitis (a newly coined term for vomiting when crimes of this ilk are commited)

Person A – Hey, how are you going?

Person B – All good thanks, but you know how it is, (makes ‘hashtag’ sign with crossed fingers) exhausted

Person A – I know what you mean, work has been crazy this month

Person B - (makes ‘hashtag’ sign with crossed fingers) SSDD (pronounced ‘ES-ES-DEE-DEE’)

Perhaps my level of frustration is only existent in people who, like me, have had worthy cause to use the hashtag for its intended purposes (and are proud to have a command of language that lets use communicate sentiment in the traditional way). Why don’t we start with a history of the hashtag.

The symbol first appeared in IRC forums from 1988 onwards (if you want to know more about IRC, go here) where it was used to group chat threads together, it helped users identify conversations of a particularly topic or posted by a particular user by generating a keyword search function. If you took to AIM in the early days, you’ll have seen the #tag appear here (especially in ‘away messages’) as people migrated from IRC.

 For me, it was the second coming of the # that really saw me use it – my first online journal, hosted by LiveJournal, where each entry was #tagged with relevant keywords to identify the main themes. Not only did this allow readers to filter my posts by interest/subject, but it created a metadata set for my reference. I could analyse what I wrote about most over a given period, compare it to other writers, and find people who had similar interests.

The big debut for the hashtag was of course Twitter. Chris Messina posted the first hashtag on Twitter with his tweet in 2007. Hashtags drive topic trends on twitter, and for the savvy tweeter, open up a vast mine of data based on keywords. They effectively turn any word or group of words that directly follow it into a searchable link. Allowing you to organize content and track discussion topics based on those keywords.

On Twitter, even I can tolerate the odd hashtag denoting tone and voice. Because Twitter is a suitable home for the hashtag. In moderation.

As we’d expect, the symbol now has applications across other social media platforms. Instagram: Hashtags here are actually really useful, and operate in a similar way to my LiveJournal blogging days. If you haven’t already, log on, search for some terms and have a play around. It’s a good visual way to see how useful the grouping functionality could be.

But then Facebook. Ahhh Facebook. Many a hashtag made its way into Facebook statuses long before it introduced the hashtag function in June this year. I won’t lie, these people made me really angry. Are they incapable of conveying sentiment? Do they not know that the addition of a # in front of their postscript was totally redundant? To me, this is like writing someone’s email address on an envelope and expecting it to go to their front door. All the same, the so called Hashtag function is live on FB now, and I plan to analyse that in more detail at some point – right now, it isn’t getting a lot of use… but the pointless and mildly nauseating hashtagging continues.

According to Facebook, “there has not been a simple way to see the larger view of what’s happening or what people are talking about.” But they hope this enhanced function will open up an extra layer or engagement.

This seems a little pointless to me, afterall, as a person to person platform (mainly) you can only see someone’s information if you are friends with them so this is hardly going to max out on transparency – a massive buzz word for the FB team. There is though, potential for Facebook pages. In theory, a #tag could be used by brands to mark their posts with relevant keywords, allowing users to find posts that interest them – increasing viral reach. Saying that, EdgeRank Checker analysed 500 pages and found that hashtagged posts had a lower viral reach, organic reach, and fan engagement than with posts not containing a hashtag. You’d expect FB to have a solid reason to dismiss this data, but it seems they themselves don’t really see the point in their latest function given their response! :

“Pages should not expect to get increased distribution (what some call virality) simply by sticking irrelevant hashtags in their posts. The best thing for Pages (that want increased distribution) to do is focus on posting relevant, high quality-content — hashtags or not. Quality, not hashtags, is what our News Feed algorithms look for so that Pages can increase their reach.”

I don’t see the point either Facebook. But I’m willing to give it time.

So slowly, hashtags are moving away from a functional purpose and becoming a shortcut to convey emotion and sentiment – yes, they are occasionally humorous when used by someone who appreciates their origins. But I can't help but suspect that we’ve found another shortcut to expressing ourselves authentically. Which doesn’t have to be difficult. The habitual need to abbreviate, or to use emoticons and hashtags alongside a written sentiment only suggests to me that we are starting to struggle with our use of language. Can’t we just express what we’re trying to say instead of positioning it with a get out clause?

I’m all for the convergence of online and offline, but I’m afraid that when it comes to words; I’ll remain old fashioned. Please continue to hashtag your tweets with meaningful thread  identifiers so I can analyse and locate the data sets I want to play with. And please do tag your Instagram posts with a hashtag to help me find the things I’m interested in. In fact, get on Facebook and try out the hashtag function, let’s see if that can be made into a useful tool. What the hell, send me an SMS once a quarter with a humorous #justsayin.  Stay strong in the knowledge that shortcutting your sentiment with a #tag will earn you no points from me, if I see your Facebook status hashtagged for no apparent reason – you go on the blacklist. Emails, if you get tempted – remove the Shift key from your keyboard.

I’m in good company with my concerns, Chris Messina himself told MTV:

“It's funny, because in the beginning, Evan [Williams] who invented Twitter flat-out rejected the idea [of hashtags],” Messina told MTV News. 

“He said it was way too nerdy and it was never going to catch on. I was kind of defeated by that and I thought, 'These guys are building Twitter, they must know something.' Being sort of a half-closeted nerd myself, I decided, 'OK, they're for nerds. I guess I'll keep doing it.' Slowly but surely, the thought virus ended up infecting so many people around the world that now, in some strange way, we are all nerds I guess.” 

“More and more I'm getting friends telling me how their kids are hashtagging everything that they say,” continued Messina. 

"The sort of prideful fear that I have is that what [Fallon] depicted is actually how teenagers are talking now.... That's not something I had really anticipated and now that I'm here I'm kind of like, 'Oh my God... what have I done?” 

You mean #OMG #whathaveidone, surely Chris!

As our online and offline lives continue to overlap, maybe our languages will too. I have no intention of stopping the digital evolution, maybe I should just get over it.

Communication between humans changed forever with the power of speech; that is, the ability to express thoughts and feelings through the articulation of sounds. Words, language as we now know it sets us apart as a species. Mark Pagel describes language as the most “powerful and dangerous result of natural selection”, viewing speech and language as the voice of our genes allows us to see how humans have become the planet’s most dominant species through an aptitude for social learning. As humans, our ability to speak enables us to learn, to share ideas and to cooperate in groups. 

There are ever growing studies on the ability of animals to understand communications from humans; and on the systems they use to communicate with one another. Take a look at these examples:

Degrees of sophistication aside, there’s no doubt that we are not alone in our communicative nature. But our system of alphabet, speaking and listening is far more advanced that anything the dolphin or the chimp could hope to achieve. 

Our lives, memories, dreams and imagination are built on this foundation – but it’s a skill we all take for granted. A 2013 Science World Report suggests that we speak an average of 7,000 or 20,000 words a day depending on our gender. Now, I’ll frame that statistic with a quote from my very own baby book, which will help you establish which is which: “My daughter started talking at 18 Months old and hasn’t been quiet since” [Dave Baldwin, circa 1995]. Apparently it’s not my fault – the increased prevalence of a protein called FOXP2 in my brain is accountable. It’s thought that the FOXP2 protein (of which females are shown to have 30% more than males) is essential for the production of speech and is a key driver of communication abilities in mammals. In theory this could allow researchers to better understand other species that may or may not possess the protein, such as our Neanderthal predecessors, and potentially trace back the evolutionary origin of speech, which is currently a source of much disagreement.

Be it 7,000 or 20,000 words a day, we are talking about (pardon the pun) a lot of talking. Although considering we are capable of thinking around 50,000 thoughts a day according to the National Science Foundation, that’s only a conversion rate of between 14%-40% from thought to voice. We have the potential to say a lot more than we do; but quantity isn’t indicative of quality that’s for sure.

Before the powers of speech, we relied on our demeanour, gestures and body language to convey our thoughts and ideas (as the ape above demonstrates so wonderfully for me). The importance of these elements hasn’t been eradicated since we found our vocal chords. But there’s often confusion over what’s and how’s here. 

We’ve all sat in that corporate presentation or in a university lecture where we’re told unequivocally that each of our communications is delivered by the 7-38-55 rule. For anyone unfamiliar with this, the ‘rule’ is a result of Albert Mehrabian’s study from the 1970s and states that face to face communication is transported according to a 7-38-55 split, where 7% is the words we say, 38% is how we say our words, and 55% are our non-verbal transmissions. Although the rule is mostly misinterpreted (it is frequently taken to apply to each and every communication, when in fact it is contextual and focuses more on any (in)congruence between the three elements) it represents a struggle between our subconscious, our intentions, thoughts and our desire to communicate.

Suffice to say, a good communicator can balance all of these elements and align them with their personality to make sure all of their messages are clear and situation appropriate,

So yes, personality plays a part in all this; it likely dictates our ‘conversation conversion rate’ described above, as well as the weighting of our communication style. This is perfectly summarised in this Psych Today Blog . We all say different things, in different ways, for different reasons, and most of the time don’t give it a second thought.

What happens then, when we are forced to communicate? By forced; when we find ourselves in a pre-meditated speaking situation. Giving a wedding speech? Presenting a new business to potential investors? A job interview or a stage audition? We’ve evolved to speak without giving it a second thought, but outside of our social interactions there are increasing demands on us to hold our own when speaking publicly. Why does that become so difficult for most of us?

According to public speaking expert Steve Corney, the reasons people struggle with making their voice heard are not as simple as we think:

“The world we live in today is so different, for a number of reasons to the world 20 or 30 years ago. We have become black and white. In attempt to play it safe and make sure that we don’t overstep the mark and shine we have made an unconscious choice as a society to play it safe and choose grey. In grey land there is no fear of being judged, no fear of failure, or your message not hitting the mark. The problem is grey is not memorable, grey is not authentic and grey is not us!

We need to accept that in order to be unique, to be ourselves we need to inject our personality in what we say. We have to believe in what we say as be so passionate about it, it becomes impossible not to sit up and pay attention. The world has become a competitive place and like paper beats rock someone who is willing to invest the time and effort into making their presentation skills amazing will win every time!”

The risks of not being able to speak confidently are well documented: public speaking tends to be a very public affair! You don’t have to look far for some examples of when it goes wrong. It’s no wonder we’re harbouring a reluctance to converse face to face in an open forum.

Deciding to improve on something we feel we should be able to do naturally, makes the challenge of self-improvement all the more tricky. Public speaking falls into this category. Many people describe the same difficulties when learning to meditate and having to focus on active breathing. Not only that, but if it’s something we are uncomfortable with – opportunities to improve can be easily avoided… the evolution of communication means that more and more we are avoiding face to face encounters and replacing them with emails, phone calls, social media and PowerPoint presentations. 

The infographic below (kindly created by Cisco with data from The Economist Intelligence Unit) illustrates the ‘Power of in Person’ – enough to make you think twice about choosing email every time.

Our most powerful evolutionary trait is being stretched – it needs to fit increasingly wide social circles, compete with digital media and set us apart in the ever competitive business world. If we want to keep face to face communication alive, we need to hone our skills just as we would on the footy field. 

Steve Corney has developed an online course which allows participants to develop their public speaking skills completely on their time. He explains that “If you break public speaking down into the key skills and components you have speaking technique, delivery style, personality and voice.  The conventional public speaking training will get people in a group, have them stand up and deliver their presentation in an attempt to hone and perfect their skills. Enter nerves, apprehension, fear, audience interaction, all of which have nothing to do with training and developing ones speaking skills.  The online course coupled with its unique speaking skills activities allows users to train specific areas of their speaking skills without the worry of an audience or nerves. Once these skills have been developed participants are encourage to then inject an audience and nerves into their training to put their newly strengthened speaking muscles to the test.”

If like me, you're known for your chatter and confident demeanour - does that automatically predispose us towards excellence in meaningful communications? It seems not. As I sit here comfortably word-smithing from the comfort of 'behind the laptop'; I find myself wondering just how effectively I could stand up in front of a crowd of 500 and deliver the same effects.

Steve has kindly invited me to take his Speaker Muscle training, a course I can take from the comfort and safety of 'behind the laptop' - genius. You can find a link to the online course here.. I'll be sure to let you know how I get on. Thanks Steve!

You can view a full size/downloadable version of this infographic here