Recently Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake made a skit parodying the use of hashtags online by using them in a face-to-face conversation. Personally, I think the skit is simultaneously hilarious and nauseating. The quick cuts to their hands making hashtag signs followed by linguistic strings of one-up-manship made the general public weep for the English language. Before this hashtag hatred gets out of hand I want to remind everyone that what could kill the English language is not the # symbol, but how people use it.
New Grammatical Concepts
With the Internet and social media we see new rules for grammar popping up. This is natural and necessary. As we explore this relatively new frontier we need to establish how to communicate within it. Grammar helps with this. Grammar helps us to understand the difference between statements and questions, it can create… suspense.
One of the earliest of widely accepted Internet grammar rules is the use of all caps. Using all caps is the text equivalent of SHOUTING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS! If you are reading this in a library, I’m sorry. I’ll keep my volume down for the rest of this post.
The hashtag, or the number or pound sign, is another one of these new grammatical concepts. It has two functions. Its main function is to link different content together to help foster an online conversation. By clicking on a hashtag you can see any number of public posts with the same hashtag. So, if you want to see what people are saying about the Oscars on Oscar night you just need to use #oscars. It’s a grammatical symbol that helps us understand the context of posts, primarily on Twitter. For instance, if I tweet:
Decisions, decisions, decisions. #nspoli
You have some context to know that I’m commenting on Nova Scotian politics. Add another hashtag and what I’m trying to say is even clearer:
Decisions, decisions, decisions #nsvotes #nspoli
Decisions, decisions, decisions #sarcasm #nsvotes #nspoli
Here, #sarcasm helps you know that my comment is sarcastic. Perhaps I believe that only one party is worth my vote in the next Nova Scotia provincial election. As you can see, the use of hashtags add context and tone to my text without needing to explain in an additional sentence. Being able to abbreviate our tone and message and context with the # helps any Twitter user stay within the 140 character limit.
For a fantastic explanation of the additive properties of hashtags on Instagram, watch this PBS Idea Channel video.
Why Make Fun of Hashtags?
I hope I’ve made it clear that hashtags are useful. In concise uses of language online they are quick and easy ways to help my friends in BC know that I don’t know who I’ll vote for in the upcoming provincial election here in Halifax. So, if it is so useful, why are comedians parodying its use?
Comedy is a useful way of helping us see society as it truly is and that’s precisely what’s happening in the skit by Fallon and Timberlake. They aren’t commenting on the hashtag itself. It is innocuous on its own. They are making fun of how many people use them improperly. It’s essentially the same as Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock who is a parody of American corporate culture and how ridiculous its jargon sounds.
I think that instead of just laughing at the skit and proclaiming: #suck! What we should do is consider how we use them and if we need to change then go for it.