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.