Jay-Z’s new album, released over the holiday weekend, includes the lyric, “Fuck the hashtags and retweets!” While critics aren’t exactly swooning, he does seem to have a point. Once just a media obsession, hashtags are now a Facebook tool, an advertising vehicle, and a cultural phenomenon that even social-media abandoners must face. On television, The Bachelor plops real-time hashtags onto the screen, while even the classier shows can’t resist catnip like #madmen — and now “Wedding Hashtag Season” is, apparently, a thing. One couple named its baby “Hashtag.”
True, hashtags can still have merit, for causes both grand (#StandWithWendy) and meme-y (#FirstWorldProblems), and they have their defenders. Still, we’re more likely now to see the cyber-litter of #fun #hot #ThrowbackThursday #lol #ironichashtag, particularly in the summer, in the orgy of hashtags for both #weddings (Exhibits A, B, C) and #heat (D, E, F). And, so, the hashtag has moved from its Baroque to Rococo period, full of self-referential love and loathing, and, at times, buckling under its own meta-weight. But we don’t have to live like this. The problem isn’t the hashtag itself, the problem is hashtag abuse. Let’s end it. By my tally, there are seven different categories of hashtag abusers:
1. The Hashtag Stuffer
The most common form of hashtag abuse. The Stuffer is incapable of simply sharing a photo of his July Fourth fireworks; he festoons it with #firework #fireworks #july4th #July4 #pretty #boom! #red #white #blue #1776bitches! (Not an exaggeration. A quick search of #fireworks took me here.) Sometimes #he hashtags random #words in sentences.
There are three potential reasons for this butchering of our language: 1) A failure to grasp the hashtag; 2) A failure to grasp humanity; and, most often, 3) A misguided attempt to “amplify your audience.” Yes, theoretically, and when used judiciously, a hashtag can showcase your #SCOTUS zinger to thousands of new eyeballs. But as Daniel Victor, a social-media editor for the Times, suggests after crunching the numbers, we’re likely to get lost in the ocean of hashtags. “#SuperBowl was used 3 million times over about five hours… Look at all those people who might be interested in our jokes about Beyonce!” writes Victor. “And yet getting any single person’s attention is just short of impossible, like a single Niagara droplet screaming for notice as it shoots down the falls.”
2. The Verbal Hashtagger
Someone who actually says the word “hashtag” in conversation. Exhibit A: Kasey, the Bachelorette contestant, who charms women with phrases — spoken out loud! — like “hashtag marriage material” and “hashtag let the journey begin.” If a Verbal Hashtagger is hiking Machu Picchu, say, he might observe the ancient ruins, feel overwhelmed with emotion, and say, “Hashtag…. breathtaking.” These are often the same people who say “LOL” or “OMG.” As someone posted in the Facebook group HashtagsSuck, “In a meeting today, a co-worker stuck two fingers in the air. He proceeded to move them left to right, then up and down, drawing a hashtag in the air, saying, ‘hashtag-that just happened.’” Recommended response to this behavior: Unfollow them IRL.
They think it’s cute to string together #Abunchofwordslikethis. And it is sort of fun and clever, at least the first 157 times you see it. The joke is stale, the fun is over, let’s give the stringer a rest. (#OhWhoAmIKidding.)
4. The Gratuitous Event Hashtagger
Long a staple of social-media insiders at events like “tweet-ups” (#gag), the Event Hashtag is oozing into the mainstream. Take my friend Jane, a film producer, who celebrated a friend’s birthday on a party bus that included a disco light and stripper pole. After a round of champagne, the organizer shushed the crowd to say, “The hashtag for today will be #Happy30SarahWonderland.” Someone asked, “Wait, is that ‘30,’ or ‘thirty’ spelled out?”
You no longer go to the beach, now you go to the #beach, where we’re more likely to play with our phones than play in the waves. If you’re grilling burgers and dogs? Step one is to pour the charcoal, step two is to hashtag #bbq. It’s only a matter of time before, on Sunday mornings, the pious whip out their phones while at #church.
Is this the future? While they can be a hyper-efficient way to cull photos and connect with strangers, hashtags can have the opposite effect on friends. (Just one more extension, of course, of a much broader and well-canvassed trend.) Hashtagging the experience changes the actual experience. (#HeisenbergUncertaintyPrinciple.) Earlier this year, at an Oscar party in Williamsburg, I looked around the room and realized that everyone was typing on their phones. We had glommed onto the hashtag #Oscars and scrambled to both consume and create. At one point, I tweeted something and was then retweeted by the guy sitting next to me — all without a single spoken word. #SelfDisgust. (Yes, this is a problem with Twitter in general, but hashtags have given it rocket fuel.) If this is the direction of “social media,” I pity our children and their children, who will spend their time in Google Bubble, using hashtags to play on the #swingset with their virtual BFFs.
5. The Hack-tagger
Created by a company, brand, or political organization after a marketing whiz-kid who just read an article on Mashable about “memes” hatches a plan to “leverage new media,” and “go viral.” The classic example is McDonald’s, who used #McDStories to ask for heartwarming stories about the golden arches. The result? A gleeful backlash of tweets like “Ate a McFish and vomited 1 hour later …. #McDstories.”
6. The Hash-swagger
Someone who uses a hashtag as a label, flaunting their red-velvety-rope event. The current poster child is #mistermansion, the hashtag coined by a cadre of publicist/fashion/editor-types to score swag for their Fire Island share. But the Hash-swag is usually less explicit. It’s often subconscious. You see it during South by Southwest, when thousands of Brooklynites flock to Austin and punctuate each tweet with #sxsw, letting us know that they’re on the scene. See also: #coachella, #fashionweek, #sundance. (Note: The Hash-swag is also known as the Humblebrag-tag, or, simply, #HumbleTag.)
7. The Hashtag as Crutch
The most subtle and, arguably, the most sneakily damaging abuse of hashtags. We use them as a crutch. The problem is that the hashtag, when used artfully, is so damn useful for clarifying tone, injecting subtext, or playfully rejiggering text. As Julia Turner writes, “[T]he hashtag gives the writer the opportunity to comment on his own emotional state, to sarcastically undercut his own tweet, to construct an extra layer of irony, to offer a flash of evocative imagery or to deliver metaphors with striking economy.”
She’s right. So, a confession: I use them all the time. In texts. In emails. In Facebook comments. One friend, when including a hashtag in a text, acknowledged the absurdity with the second hashtag, #hashtagsintexts. (#Meta.)
But is this too much of a cheat? A gimmick that stops us from going deeper, thinking harder, or expressing ourselves more fully and clearly? I’m thrilled that past generations were forced to communicate without hashtags, otherwise we might have grown up reading:
O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore art thou Romeo? #horny
It was the best of times. #AndWorstofTimes
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. #Jailbait
“Luke… I am your father. #SpoilerAlert.”
Jeff Wilser is the co-author of the (just released) It’s Okay to Sleep with Him on the First Date: And Every Other Rule of Dating, Debunked. He uses hashtags in Twitter at @jeffwilser.