Once the preserve of Twitter, the “#” symbol, followed by a subject tag, has criss-crossed the internet, and beyond into offline advertising.
Into the absurd, even. In 2012, unconfirmed reports suggested a baby had been given the name Hashtag.
They’re everywhere in music, too, with 2013 witnessing a “summer of hashtags in song titles”, according to Lindsay Zolads, writing from the northern hemisphere for the music site Pitchfork.
Which, naturally, turned into the “summer of internet think-pieces about hashtags in song titles”.
The releases read “like a parade of contenders waving the flags of their own built-in PR campaigns,” Zoladz writes.
There’s Mariah Carey and Miguel’s “#Beautiful”. Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull offered “#LiveItUp”. Miley Cyrus released “#GETITRIGHT”, and Busta Rhymes had “#Twerkit”. And from the “technologically overzealous” will.i.am, there was “#thatPOWER”, from the album #willpower.
The colloquial titles will forever place the releases in their time, Zolads reckons. Carey and Miguel’s track might be terrific, but “twenty years from now, it’ll sound every bit as great as it sounds this afternoon, but thanks to its bad tattoo of a title, ‘#Beautiful’ is forever doomed to show its age.”
For all that, Zolads finds herself inclined to defend the “hashtag mania” – “if only for the selfish reason that I’ve noticed it creeping into my thoughts, my speech, and my non-Twitter vocabulary, and I want to believe I’m not crazy. (Or the punchline of a Jimmy Fallon skit.)”
My text messages to friends are now dotted with goofy, unclickable hashtags, and right before I sat down to write this I dashed off an email to a friend with a link to something we’d been talking about earlier, with the subject line: “#relevant.” Why not just “Relevant”? Well, for one thing, “#relevant” feels more casual, more intimate, more knowingly ironic – like you’re shrugging off any claim to profundity. You aware that you’re not one-in-a-million; you’re in on that cosmic joke.
And the hashtag is not mere cosmetics. It is useful, she wirtes.
As more and more of our daily interactions become text-based—people preferring texting to phone calls, workplaces that rely heavily email and instant messaging—we’re developing ways to stretch our written language so it can communicate more nuance, so we can tell people what we mean without accidentally leading them on or pissing them off. Periods have become more forceful, commas less essential, and over the last few years, the hashtag has morphed into something resembling the fabled sarcasm font—the official keystroke of irony. Putting a hashtag in front of something you text, email, or IM to someone is a sly way of saying “I’m joking,” or maybe more accurately, “I mean this and I don’t at the same time.”
See also: The life and times of the @ symbol