Monday, October 24, 2011

# hashtags - this year's LOL?

Following on from the post about changing punctuation, here's a guest post from Emma Bertouche who is an Online Marketing Executive for a language translations company and writes for several websites and blogs regarding language and social media.

Advances in technology have always added to and changed the way we use the English language. The rise of social media and the regular social network user is the latest example of the internet driving many new or distorted words and phrases into common language, infiltrating themselves into daily use in written and spoken communication.

Many blogs and articles are written every day on how this is perceived to be diluting and misusing the English language – and many other languages for that matter. One phenomenon that needs closer examination is the growing use of the lowly hashtag - ‘#’ – to emphasise an argument, feeling,  or solidarity with a group.

For those people unfamiliar with Twitter and the hashtag phenomenon, words or phrases are prefixed with a hash symbol (#), with multiple words concatenated, such as:
#RealAle is my favourite kind of #beer

Then, a person can search for the string #RealAle and this tagged word will appear in the search engine results. Hashtags are used by people to try and get a topic trending. A trending topic is a word, phrase or topic that is posted (tweeted) multiple times, these trending topics are then shown on websites, including Twitter's own front page. The aim is that  users can then search for any Tweets containing that specific term or phrase and read what other Twitter users across the globe are saying about it.

On the surface this seems to be another internet trend, spreading from person to person within the online culture, which originated on the Twitter social networking site. So when someone in the office recently described themselves (in the spoken word) as “hashtag smug” it was an example of how quickly the language of social media is making an appearance not only in other online communities, but also creeping into everyday spoken conversation.

The phenomenon has also been picked up by The New York Times, which wrote this interesting article about the hashtag making this way into our lives.  We increasingly see instances of the hashtag being implemented on other social networks, where characters are no longer capped(the internet equivalent of shouting)  yet people use it to stress a word or point that they are trying to make. Furthermore, unlike ‘text speak’ and the lingo of teenagers, this trend is not exclusive to a specific demographic of people, and can have universal appeal.

Twitter is, in essence, the 21st Century equivalent of William Tyndale, facilitating the mass distribution of the written word across an era-defining medium; in Tyndale's case, Caxton's printing press, and in the case of Twitter, social media. The messages they communicate may have been different (Tyndale translated the Bible, rather than screamed #WELOVEJUSTINBIEBER) but their aim is the same; for as many people to see their message as possible. Similar to Tyndale, however, there are many clamouring to cry heresy at the implementation of a new language variant, and opposition to the hashtag is growing to levels previously experienced as a result of the rise of texting and email. It is to be hoped those opposed don't follow Pope Clement VII's example, and seek to eradicate the problem as they see it. Thankfully, I don't think nouns are flammable. 

Of course as with any form of publicity, be it self promoting or for business there can often be a downside or even a backlash at attempts to use the hashtag for marketing purposes. People often see the opportunity to use trending topics to spam Twitter with unrelated topics but then include a popular hashtag to ensure their tweet gets seen be a decent number of Twitter users. One of the more documented mistakes was that of Habitat who used hashtags including #IranElection and #Mousavi to promote discounts on their products, making for some heroically non-sensical tweets. The idea behind the madness is not a particularly clever one at the best of times but linking a range of home furniture to  sensitive humanitarian crises is only ever going to anger people. .

Social media trends do not provide the first examples of  ‘moral panic’ regarding language change, either. In fact, there is a long history of alarm at evolving language trends. The rise of the postcard brought with it concerns that, due to the limited amount of space people had to write their messages, the use of the English language would be compromised. Comparisons between the post card and Twitter have already been made by The Daily Mail, back in 2009.

It will be interesting to learn what future language scholars make of the introduction of social media and its effects on the spoken word – there is already debate raging on what to call this new phenomenon.
While researching the hashtag I found a web forum where linguists were asking “Is there a linguistics term for glued-together Twitter hashtags, such as #vacationwishlist, #isawesome, and #wordsthatdescribeme?” The closest answer I could find was portmanteau but a hashtag doesn’t create new words; it just lumps existing words together.

 There doesn’t seem to be an agreed linguistic term for this yet, but people are still able to easily associate meaning to it. Unlike the controversy of ‘text speak’ entering the English Language, which seemed to scythe down language to its most basic construct,  would the inclusion of hashtag English (as indeed with other languages that communicate via Twitter) be as contentious?

In the same way that people now question whether it is acceptable to include ‘smilies’ in emails to colleagues, the fact that the use of #hashtag  is up for discussion means that some people already find it acceptable and do use them - whether others like it or not.

Although I have only heard one example of ‘hashtag’ in spoken communication, it will be interesting to see if this catches on. Social media is presenting a whole new set of questions on the future of language for the students and tutors to solve, and who knows - maybe if I was ‘down with the kids’ I wouldn’t feel so #confused .

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