Hashtag determinative: how the internet is changing us

Where they coexist, (and they needn’t) spoken and written language are tightly bound to the social and technological regimes that they animate. Technologies of writing – from hammer, chisel, and stone tablet, to ink and parchment or the modern keyboard – influence how specific systems of writing will emerge, and how components of these systems will convey information. English has never been immune. The invention of the printing press saw letters erased or added to the alphabet, as printers used technology that was not necessarily designed for English but was nevertheless operable on it. The standardisation of the modern keyboard has led some to ask whether it will constitute the last alphabet English will ever have. This may or not be the case; language still wants to change. It finds ways to evolve to meet the expressive demands of the people who use it. One of the most interesting developments on the internet has been the emergence of the pound (#) symbol as a linguistic figure, for its use in hashtags. What exactly ‘#’ is, is not necessarily, immediately apparent. This is by no means a finished discussion, but I want to go some way towards unpacking it.

The use of hashtags (the placement of the ‘#’ symbol in front of a word or a collection of characters) began as a way to categorise and sort content so that it could be searchable by keyword. In this basic sense hashtags are read by searching algorithms and don’t contain much information specifically designed for readers. There are rules as to what functions as a hashtag; the ‘#’ symbol cannot be directly or solely followed by numerical digits, for example, nor by special characters or punctuation like periods and exclamation marks. Hashtags are not case-sensitive. Twitter, where hashtags had their genesis, does not regulate their use but suggests that they be ‘respectful and sparing’; not more than two to a post, they say. Aside from these conditions the hashtag is the user’s to wield.

Understandings of ‘#’, in English literature at least, have been confused on a number of counts. Firstly, there has been a focus on what kinds or hashtags are likely to be successful or popular: how does the length, character makeup, number of exposures to, etc., impact a hashtag’s likelihood of being used widely? Secondly, there has been a preoccupation with complete hashtags and what they are; other than being phonetically different, is ‘university’ a different word to ‘#university’, for example? Paola-Maria Caleffi attributes some of this confusion to the fact that ‘hashtagging does not correspond to any of the already existing (English) morphological processes (like compounding, blending, agglutination)’. Her own focus, however, remains on completed hashtags, which she calls a new type of ‘linguistic item’, both words and not yet words.  Caleffi’s comment, almost an aside, on process is a good starting point for understanding how ‘#’ functions grammatically, and asks us to look elsewhere.

‘#’ is clearly a kind of prefix. This has been pointed out around the web. As mentioned above, hashtags do not necessarily contain information; rather, the norms that have developed around their meaning and use allow information to be read into hashtagged content. As a parenthetical comment on the content of a post, hashtags modulate the tone of writing. #kidding washes a statement with sarcasm while a post comprised solely of #angry points to a singular rage. In this sense, hashtags sometimes provide a clarity of tone that has otherwise been missing from online communication, especially where sarcasm is involved.

Some of the most significant uses of hashtags have been by social movements (#occupy, #blacklivesmatter, #sosblakaustralia and so forth). As well as a lot of popular description addressing it, academic writing has also looked at this phenomenon. In her linguistic analysis of Twitter, Michele Zappavigna points out how hashtags operate as both ‘searchable-’ and ‘findable-talk’, but more importantly, how the use of hashtags refers to the values that their users hold. For Zappavinga, the hashtag says ‘Search for me and affiliate with my value!’ Or how using the popular Monday night hashtags #qanda or #auspol signals a belief in a certain kind of democratic process; perhaps an affiliation, real or aspirational, with the values and communities associated with them. Conversely, for newly emergent social movements, hashtags associated with them carve out a virtual space where their values can be worked out.

This notion can also be extrapolated to cover the use of hashtags in offline communication or in online spaces where they have no search function. In these instances the ‘#’ symbol refers to a user’s familiarity with online cultures in general. ‘#’ can modulate tone or indicate affiliation, and is used outside of simply categorising content for searchability.

Now we are getting close to what, grammatically, the ‘#’ is. Firstly, in referring to one’s group affiliations, values, mood, or tone, it points to an idea that the user has about themselves. It refers to its initiator in the same manner as the word ‘myself’. It is reflexive. Secondly, while the phonetics of ‘#’ are settled, when preceding a string of characters it is pronounced ‘hashtag’. It is not phonetically important, instead, it is semantically important. It references ideas rather than sounds; it is an ideogram. ‘#’ is an instruction to the reader/listener on how to read – not the text they are presented with but the author of that text; their feelings, their politics, their level of irate-ness. In this sense, as an instruction, ‘#’ bears more than a passing resemblance to what is known as a determinative. Determinatives are usually present in mixed phonetic/semantic writing systems like those that use CJK characters, and give clues as to the true context of a symbol or string of symbols where there would otherwise be more than one possible interpretation. ‘#’ is therefore unique. It’s an element of grammar that breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, making the unclear or imperceptible perceptible. ‘#’ is a reflexive-ideogrammatic-determinative.

I can understand why there has been difficulty pinning down hashtags in linguistics, since ideograms and determinatives have not been present in English writing up until now. They are truly a product of our time, a product of highly digitalised and computerised communication. They are a product of the capacities of computer software designed to respond to the huge amount of information produced and consumed on the internet. They cannot be owned, and so remain unsettled. There are numerous cases of confusion arising when different groups use the same hashtags for different, but completely innocuous purposes, or of hashtags being hijacked to spread a message contrary to their original users’ intent. Most interestingly, I think, when we use hashtags outside of spaces that allow them to be searched for, including in speech, they illustrate that the technological regimes we immerse ourselves in are not spatially or temporally bounded. This is a key component in Gilles Deleuze’s concept of ‘a society of control’ that he thought characterised contemporary, hyper-technologised, hyper-capitalistic Western societies.

A lot remains to be said about hashtags, a lot of ideas to be had.


Nikolajs Ozolins

Nikolajs Ozoliņš is a PhD student from Wollongong, NSW, who likes reading books, riding bicycles, and taking long walks off short piers.

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