In a post a few months back called The Evolution of Communication, I discussed how the ways in which we are communicating with each other and the world Is going through a paradigm shift. One of the many little novelties that emerged with newer forms of communication is the hashtag. The “#” symbol originally had no meaning; it was a symbol arbitrarily chosen when a new unambiguous sign was needed for a text encoding system for computers. But in the last few years, with the dominance of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and even Facebook*, it’s one of the strange by-products of communication that’s new and completely unique to written text online – not used in most speech or hand-written language. And personally, I think it’s one of the most fascinating things to come out of online communication.
Hashtags are short and sweet – a word or few that sums up a situation or a complex idea in a catchy way. In that way, it’s much like poetry. Hashtags and poetry try to condense a complicated or large idea into a relatively tiny number of words, and this gives both (poetry and hashtags) a certain underlying power that can’t often be replicated in plain writing. Pick a recent movement, #blacklivesmatter, for example. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter and the words “Police bias against blacks are unjust” essentially contain the same idea, but a short hashtag delivers the notion in a much more condensed, impactful package. Those three words grew to symbolize countless ideas and people throughout the campaign. And even though I’m not exactly aligning myself with the words and the actions of the protesters, it’s undeniable that the slogan embodies a powerful notion of fighting back against systemic racism. The same can be said about a movement that wasn’t so big in the United States as it was in China, specifically Hong Kong. The fight for a more transparent democracy in Hong Kong earned the name #umbrellarevolution, and the simple phrase has been a strong, poetic symbol for the Hong Kong protesters to rally around for quite a while at this point. Hashtags' simple power to condense notions down to a few letters' length make them the poetry for the connected generation.
But beyond just a set of words, hashtags can be far more influential. I think the most important and pivotal role that hashtags have played in our society is easily building powerful communities. The aforementioned #blacklivesmatter and #umbrellarevolution movements are just the tip of the iceberg. Aided by both the universality and wide reach of the social networking services and the big ideas behind hashtags, people often use them to organize and draw attention to movements by drawing millions of people together. This year’s annual Project for Awesome is another example of hashtags fostering an impactful online community, with a total of six trending Twitter hashtags and way over 1.2 million dollars raised for multiple charities around the world. Because of the discoverability of hashtags in various websites, as well as the idea of collaborating around a single idea – a single hashtag – they provide a growing tool for community projects and movements.
These are just the benefits of hashtags to the users and the activists, revolutionizing the way we share ideas and build communities in ways not possible with the traditional media. But there’s a second side of the equation, for looking at our societies from a more external point of view. The same analysis Google does every year with its Zeitgeist by looking at the search volumes of various trends through its search engines, we are also able to do with hashtags used in social media. Looking through how many people used which hashtags, we can remind ourselves about the most important things, the most moving events, the most popular ideas, and the most influential people of the year. Through hashtags, we can see that we mourned the death of Robin Williams and loss of the Malaysia Airlines passengers, enjoyed together the World Cup and the Sochi Olympic Games, asked about Ebola and ISIS, and celebrated unity during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
People often criticize online communication that they transform us into apathetic Internet-zombies, but the way they enable us to collaborate at this unprecedented scale to bring about large social changes is a solid evidence against that claim. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule; but I think in this case, the power of hashtags is the norm rather than the exception. Just as traditional poetry inspires us to examine our lives for the better, I think the twenty-first century’s poetry can give us a new way to look at our society, and to improve upon it every time.
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