The hashtag: rebel punctuation mark or degrader of debate?

Tweets are power. Corporate marketers and government propagandists know this too

 The hash symbol was adopted by Twitter in 2007 and Instagram in 2010 as a useful means of tagging information.  Photograph: Alex Bramwell/Getty

The hash symbol was adopted by Twitter in 2007 and Instagram in 2010 as a useful means of tagging information. Photograph: Alex Bramwell/Getty

 

The short history of the hashtag tells the story of our social media revolution. It also tags one of the biggest challenges facing our internet age: how to preserve a trusted space for the free exchange of ideas.

On one level, the seemingly humble hashtag, a technical device for tagging metadata that first appeared on social media 12 years ago, has developed into an extraordinary means of amplifying the voice of the once-voiceless. Just think of the impact that the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter protest movements have had on debates about sexual harassment and police brutality.

No wonder the hashtag has been called the rebel punctuation mark.

On another level, the hashtag is increasingly becoming a mechanism for manipulation and surreptitious social control. Just look at the way corporate interests tried to trademark #Rio2016 ahead of the Brazil Olympics. Or how the Chinese authorities have blocked potentially subversive memes, including, rather bizarrely, #PeppaPig.

According to the Global Times, “unruly slackers” were exploiting the cartoon character to promote an antisocial counterculture. Who knew?

Of course, access to information has always been a battleground: knowledge is power. That is why governments have habitually licensed newspapers, burnt books and censored films. Through the ages, the state has fiercely protected its role as the ultimate gatekeeper.

But the invention of the internet 50 years ago tilted the balance of power away from the state and big media corporations towards civil society and the individual.

Cyber pioneers

Information was no longer the exclusive preserve of the powerful and the privileged. It has become creatable, accessible and shareable by anyone with a smartphone. In this sense, information has been liberated, just as the early cyber space pioneers dreamed.

Andreas Bernard, professor of cultural studies at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany, hails this explosion of information as creating a new political and cultural dynamic. “In the age of social media, everybody can be both a sender and a receiver of information. This has led to restructuring of information and radical democracy,” he says.

But the political struggle over information has not ended, it has just changed shape. Now it is over how to sort, structure and share superabundant information. This is where the history of the hashtag becomes interesting.

The hash symbol, known as the number or pound sign in American English, has been used for centuries. It was included on the keyboard of the 1878 Remington 2 typewriter, early IBM computer punch cards and AT&T telephone keypads in the 1960s. Telephone engineers even debated whether to rename the symbol the octothorp.

The hash was adopted by Twitter in 2007 and by Instagram in 2010 as a useful means of tagging information. It really took off in 2009 when the microblogging platform used it to promote trending topics.

Taxonomy vs folksonomy

The novelty was that anyone could create a hashtag, even if few gained traction, creating a new unofficial taxonomy of knowledge. Previously, classification was controlled by officials who would sort information into formal categories. The hashtag enabled ordinary folk to create a new so-called folksonomy.

One of the earliest examples of a hashtag going viral came during the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential elections, when #iranelections was used more than 10,000 times an hour. Other movements include #OccupyWallStreet, #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria, #JeSuisCharlie in France and #MeToo.

But Prof Bernard, author of The Theory of the Hashtag, says that free expression on the internet is steadily being reclaimed by corporate marketers and government propagandists. Moreover, while hashtags can focus attention on a particular topic they also tend to narrow the differentiation within that discussion, homogenising opinion.

Katja Bego, who has produced an online history of the internet for Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, says that the use of hashtags is part of a bigger debate about trust in information in the digital age. Every user now sees a different timeline, meaning that almost nothing is accepted as fact.

“That is one of the scariest things about the internet,” she says. “The anti-vaxxer movement could only happen when you no longer have a trusted system of knowledge.” There is no question that the internet has performed a phenomenal function in liberating information. Yet, the paradox of our times may be that it has also degraded debate. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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