As Ashlee Humphreys mentioned in our reading, a generation is defined as “a historically specific group of people who have experienced seminal historical events at a similar age” (pg. 118). When I think of historical, I think of drastic changes in the political climate or revolutions in our technological capabilities. However, as society rapidly changes and adapts with each generation, don’t social trends and viral media count as historical? When my generation has grandchildren, will the hashtag be considered a historical step in online communication?
I refer to current social media users as the hashtag generation because the hashtag is encompassed in just about all that we do on social platforms. This small but extremely powerful symbol originated back in 2007 “with a tweet by San Francisco techie and former Google developer Chris Messina. He wrote on Twitter, “How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”” (Brown). As with most content these days, it did not take long for this “pound” sign trend to carry over to Facebook, Instagram and even Snapchat. This symbol has now become apart of our generation’s basic vocabulary, both written and spoken aloud. To me, that seems like a pretty historical event.
As generation hashtag, we have become obsessed with this combination of two overlapping sets of parallel lines. As Chris Messina brilliantly predicted, this symbol would be a way for online users to group content together. Does this make the web smaller, as it forms tighter-knit communities within platforms? Or does it make the internet an even larger entity, expanding networks and opening topics for discussion? We use the hashtag for three main reasons: to categorize our content, to join online communities, and simply because it feels like a natural way to end a post.
We use the hashtag to categorize content and bring similar ideas together. This is really where trending falls. When a lot of people are talking about the same thing on a platform, the platform recognizes it as a trend. This is very common during the election or other popular world events. As social media platforms gain more traction as a news source, a lot of users will turn to trending content for new viewpoints and information. The hashtag allows all of this information to be grouped together for the user to easily access and understand events in real time.
Recently, there have been protests and marches happening in light of the recent election and several of the initiatives our president plans to take. We could see everything happening around the Women’s March with the hashtag, #WomensMarch. With a search of this hashtag, a user is able to see all the aggregated content surrounding this event, from places and people all over the world (as seen below). This historical event will now be documented and archived using generation hashtag’s most prized symbol. The impact of this physical event can now live historically online long after the event is over.
Joining online communities:
The hashtag also has a tremendous affordance of bringing communities together. As Humphreys discusses on page 116, “Homophily is the tendency for people to affiliate with others who are like them”. Generation hashtag does this by creating common phrases for the movements and causes that they are passionate about. We saw this happen with the tragic Orlando night club shooting. The hashtag #PrayForOrlando quickly circulated to bring the world together for those who lost a loved one, or for anyone emotionally affected. This hashtag built a support community in an online environment so that users could feel connected even through a technological screen.
On a lighter scale, we can also see users using the hashtag to join “teams” such as the infamous blue and black or white and gold dress. When this viral dress hit the internet, users immediately hopped onto #TheDress debate…and took it very seriously. Users could simply not understand how others could disagree with the way they saw the dress.
It is natural:
Finally, generation hashtag uses the symbol because it almost feels abnormal to exclude one in a post. I see hashtags on Snapchat, where the hashtag itself has no power to lead the user anywhere because it cannot be clicked. In this case, the hashtag is solely a visual component to a post, but users still incorporate this beloved symbol because #WhyNot. We even use the word in verbal communication, possibly poking fun at our obsession with the craze, hopefully on a less dramatic note than Jimmy Fallon.
Although we may not take it as far as Jimmy, I don’t blame Muriel McDonald for stating, “I’ll hear someone drop a hashtag into daily conversation in an ironic but not-so-ironic way, and I’ll think, hashtags are ruining the English language.” (Macdonald). The hashtag generation is not so much defined as a distinct age rage, but as a time in history when we have put so much emphasis on one symbol that has changed the way we communicate both online and in person.
Brown, Heather. “Good Question: How Did The Pound Sign Become A Hashtag?” WCCO CBS Minnesota. CBS, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.
Humphreys, Ashlee. “Chapter 7.” Social Media: Enduring Principles. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 116-18. Print.
Macdonald, Muriel. “How #Hashtags Changed the Way We Talk.” TINT Blog. Disqus, 09 Sept. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. <https://www.tintup.com/blog/how-hashtags-changed-the-way-we-talk/>.