“At their most annoying, the colloquial hashtag has burst out of its use as a sorting tool and become a linguistic tumor – a tic more irritating than any banal link or lazy image meme.” Thus Sam Biddle, writing for, sums up the problems surrounding the hashtag. Originally intended for a particular purpose, the hashtag is now being used out of context.

What is hashtagging, you ask? Welcome to the twenty-first century. Broadly speaking, a hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by the hash symbol. Popular examples include #Winning or #LikeABoss. The hashtag originated on Twitter as a way of sorting or tagging topics in order to make them easily searchable by grouping similar tweets together. However, it has recently begun to expand beyond this function – either being overused, or spilling over on other social networking sites (like Facebook) and even instant messaging services (like BlackBerry Messenger and WhatsApp).

For many, the fact that the hashtag exists is not the real problem – rather, it’s how it is used (or misused) in this way. While the merits and downfalls of the use of hashtags outside of Twitter is debatable, what is certain is that this is quite well-established as a trend. The Wikipedia page on hashtags explains, “Although Facebook doesn’t support hashtags as metadata, it has become a way for users to make expressions, rather, to emphasize a particular word or subject within a post.”

In response to this, UCT student Kristian Gerstner (currently completing his honours in environmental management) says, “When people on Facebook hashtag for no reason, or without realising what its purpose is, it looks rather retarded.” Information design student Caitlin Roberts has a different opinion. “Half the point of social media applications is cross-pollination. Hashtags are annoying on Facebook, but it’s part of the whole social media scene. People must accept and move on or get off the net.”

But does this kind of cross-pollination make sense? Looking back at the now mostly obsolete SMS lingo, it seems to have faced similar problems. When we were all paying for our messages because of the number of characters we typed, it made sense to be economical with language – hence abbreviations like “l8r” (later) and “plz” (please). However, with the ever-increasing popularity of free or cheap instant messaging, as well as the growing number of cellphone models equipped with QWERTY keypads, common sense says this shouldn’t be necessary. But the trend carried over to social networking anyway.

It is undeniable that the English language evolves rapidly and constantly. Take, for example, the emoticon. Colons, semi-colons and brackets, when arranged in a certain manner, have now taken up widely recognised meanings and functions completely apart from their traditional ones. But keep in mind that such change is fundamental to the language. Think of it this way: as much as English scholars may admire Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, you won’t see them – or anyone else – speaking it in everyday situations (unless you get them drunk enough to start reciting, of course).

But now a new question emerges: where should the line be drawn between the necessity of evolution in language and an actual abuse of language? Perhaps the best ones to ask, in this case, are Twitter users themselves.

A study by a group of university students overseas gives insight into the mind of the average Twitter user. The group created a website called “Who Gives a Tweet?”. Through the website, users could sign up for anonymous feedback on their tweets in exchange for rating tweets by others. When evaluating tweets, users could also comment. In less than three weeks, there were more than 43 000 ratings from almost 1 500 users. On the subject of hashtags, the study states: “Twitter-specific syntax was a common source of complaint, particularly the overuse of hashtags and @mentions.

Users who responded to Perdeby’s hashtag survey on Twitter seemed to agree. Melissa (@pirategurt) wrote, “Don’t know why, but it annoys me so much. It’s worse when someone doesn’t even have Twitter but they’ll hashtag in a BBM update.” Similarly, Byron (@TheLifeOfByron) emphasises the issue of correct context: “They are used on Twitter for searching or events, so there is no point using them outside Twitter or Instagram,” he says. This raises an important point: the fact that some social networking services outside of Twitter do integrate hashtagging abilities into their website – you can search or categorise by hashtag, and clicking on the hashtag takes you to the results. This puts hashtagging back into its intended role of categorisation. Instagram is one such social networking service, along with Google+, Pinterest and Tumblr.

So how can Twitter users make use of them in an efficient and appropriate manner? Blogger Dave Coustan acknowledges that hashtags are sometimes both necessary and useful, like in large-scale emergency situations. “When bad things happen, people flip out and anything that can help pull people together is a positive. I certainly wouldn’t stop following people in the middle of a disaster because I saw them using hashtags.” Even the official Twitter help page for hashtags advises users to practise caution, stating, “Don’t #spam #with #hashtags. Don’t over-tag a single tweet. Use hashtags only on tweets relevant to the topic.”

Perhaps the main thing to consider when using hashtags is to go back to the basics of their intended purpose – if not for the sake of grammar, then at least for the sake of your followers.

What is your opinion on hashtags? Are they endlessly useful or infinitely irritating? Join the debate by tweeting you r opinions to @meagandill or @perdebynews.

Image: Beyers de Vos, JP Nathrass and Nadine Laggar

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