It’s the socks and sandals of netiquette. Or, still using netiquette (which is actually on this spell checker)…the fax-paux of fax-pauxs on the internet: using the hashtag (#, the pound, number, sign) on Facebook (Just check out any number of posts about it on reddit).
The assumption is that people who use mainstream social media sites don’t know how the internet works enough to properly use a phrasing that is only useful to one site. In this case, the hashtag only works on Twitter (other sites like Tumblr do use them but to tag posts, they are useless inside of texts). The hashtag on twitter serves to categorize, link, and find related posts. Trending right now is #20peopleIwanttomeet. So, on Twitter someone would tweet “LeBron James #20peopleIwanttomeet” and the twitterverse would know that the person is referring to the trending social conversation and not just tweeting LeBron’s name for some reason.
The first issue, is a technical one: the hashtag is technically obsolete on Twitter, to a point. Hashtags help you to quickly get something trending, especially a long phrase, like #rejectedolympicsports, or something that could easily be lost because it’s so everyday, like #Community, where you want to refer, and connect your tweet to the TV show and not tweets about various community programs, centers, or colleges. But in the last couple of years Twitter has used an internal search protocol that allows non-hashed words and phrases to trend. Trending right now is “Cruel Summer” and “Army of Two.” Both hashtag worthy but it wasn’t necessary.
That may explain that even the hashtag is somewhat less than useful even on twitter, but what does this have to do with why I think it’s more than OK to use the hashtag outside of twitter?
The hashtag has become a useful metatextual referent that doesn’t exist in English. Put more simply, the hashtag does more than common punctuation or spoken cues, and there isn’t an equivalent in English that does the same thing. What does it do? It’s serves to place a given phrase into a larger dialogue (perhaps the dialogic?) conversation.
Not all hashtags do this. To write on Facebook “I ate at #tacobell today,” doesn’t utilize that hashtag correctly. But, using it like: “Got a job as a pretzel cart vendor #simpsonsdidit” presents an idea that can’t be used, at least succinctly by common usage. You could say, “I got a job at a pretzel cart…remember when Marge did that on the Simpsons?” but it still doesn’t have the same connotation as #simpsonsdidit, which in turn refers to a South Park reference, and a larger idea that The Simpsons have been around for such a long time that there is a Simpsons reference for everything.
There is a grey area. Some hashtaggable phrases can be used without a hash tag. A phrase like “Just caught a giant fish #likeaboss” could be rendered instead as “I just caught a giant fish…like a boss” or use a - or semicolon. While the use of the hashtag may not be as correct in usage, it does however, serve a purpose to 1) mark a self awareness and 2)cross reference the statement to the phrase, both the original rap song but more so to the SNL digital video. In this context the phrase takes on a more self-aware, and humorous tone (I feel bad using humorous in such a dry, boring sentence there…sorry). You’re explaining to your friends, by using a hashtag, that you’d never in a million years actually use “Like a Boss” seriously in a conversation.
In this respect, the hashtag serves as a footnote without the explanatory footnote text. This is because the footnote itself serves to reference a larger dialogue/conversation, or popular idea or concept. If I write “Forgot I was watching DVR…watched commercials #firstworldproblems” the hashtag phrase does a tremendous amount of work. It works to signal that the preceding phrase was self-aware, and it then connects it to the reference that I was aware of when I was writing. It has more power than saying “I’m so privileged in the first world and feel kinda guilty about it but also have a sense of humor about my liberal guilt so today when I was watching a DVR recording and sat through the commercials I was upset but realized I have it easy.” It also connects what I wrote to the ever increasing collection of first world problems, not directly as a hashtag may have originally been designed to do, but in a more abstract but in a Dialogic sense.
By Dialogic I am referring to one of the key ideas of Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s idea of the dialogic, in language (relating to literature there are some differences) everything said exists in conversion with everything that has ever been said and in anticipation of what will be said in the future. In other words, that what someone says or (to certain extents) writes is not done in a vacuum. It is informed by everything we’ve read, heard, what has been said, and what we anticipate to be said. This is particularly evident in our word choice. Certain words and phrases have, over time and in settings (religious, nationalist, regional, etc) obtained meanings that aren’t definitionally attached to the word, but are important baggage. A good example of this is “Homeland,” in the more recent appropriation by the Tea Party of the old motto “Don’t tread on me,” which both refers to the pre/and revolutionary American past but now has to include their political evaluation of the meaning of the motto.
In a way, the Hashtag is, whether it knows it or not, a way or recognizing that with millions of published utterances on the net a second (in fact, someone has probably published a similar post/article by now, but I’m not aware of it), that you are aware of this connectivity and referentiality.
A more difficult example is the worst offense anyone can currently make: using YOLO as a hashtag on Facebook (YOLO, as I understand it is Carpe Diem for idiot teens). For instance “skipped class #YOLO” Here, just using the acronym would be enough “Snuck into the movies YOLO.” But the user is referring to the larger usage among teens, and perhaps not the Drake (I’ll blame Drake here) song that started the usage. A better usage would be an ironic YOLO, the “watched the olympics in sweat pants #YOLO.”
The hashtag has escaped its utilitarian existence: it’s not longer a necessity for technological cataloging, and now serves as, depending on your view, a referential sign to the dialogic, or the post-modern. Its new existence has become far more fascinating. That we need a new marker in our writing and, yes, even speech, to remind us how technologically linked we our, how much and how quickly information is shared between us.