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#Everywhere – Decoding the hashtag

New worlds bring with them new signs. In the digital world, perhaps none is as ubiquitous as the hashtag. In a short time, the # has become part of our vocabulary, framing our exertions on the internet with its inventive functionality. We hashtag words to infuse them with a new powerful meaning, and convert them from mere words to potential junctions teeming with life. The hashtag allows us to participate in bigger conversations as well as make our own contributions discoverable by a much larger audience.

Hashtags are changing the world in a whole range of ways. They have become the pivot of strong and profoundly influential social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. They enable subjects to trend on Twitter, thereby determining what constitutes our sense of what is important in the here and now. They help create a new brand of celebrities, whose every post reaches numbers not imaginable previously.

All of eleven years old in its current form, the hashtag is largely a user-based innovation, that gained in popularity reportedly after a forest fire in San Diego in 2007. In this very short frame of time, it has become an intrinsic part of our digital vocabulary.

In the leaderless world of social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, who gets the right to start a conversation and how do others get to participate? The hashtag creates opportunities for structures to form organically. People gravitate to hashtags, crowds build. The hashtag is a way of creating order in a torrent of chaos that is social media.

It is the still point of universe that is turning dizzily, a place where things come to rest, assemble. The idea of a linguistic device that produces a completely new kind of a social instrument is quite fascinating. By using a symbol used earlier largely to denote a number, and giving it a new functionality, entirely new kinds of conversations have been enabled on social media.

One can think of the hashtag as a gathering spot that allows the otherwise commonplace to become attention-getting. The word or phrase elevated to a junction. A call to arms. A common flag to fly under. A hashtag like #MeToo derives its power because it is sharp but not narrow, it helps strike a precise chord of recognition while inviting participation from a wide range of experiences.

The complexity caused by the openness of language is sought to be tamed using language itself. Social media acts as a public square but even on an open platform like Twitter, without a device like the hashtag, we could all be talking about the same thing but because we might be using slightly different language to do so, we may very easily be talking past each other.

The hashtag makes things easier by enabling discovery in its design. A subject identifies itself and invites participation, making conversations self-organising. In a sense, the idea of search is reversed. The emphasis here is on being found, obviating the need for an elaborate search.

The internet is a boundless universe without geography. In order to navigate it better, we construct our own version of topography in this shapeless world by erecting little islands in fast moving streams of information.

Theorists Mol & Law use the idea of ‘Immutable Mobiles’ to describe the nature of the hashtag. Immutable mobiles are objects that ‘have structure and are unchangeable’, enabling the accretion of knowledge and interaction at the same site. They help create stability in a volatile system, bringing everyone on the same page, in the case of the hashtag, more or less literally. Even a slight change in the hashtag, for instance can fracture conversations.

The hashtag helps compress complex subjects into something graspable and help create circulation. In doing so, it also simultaneously reduces the complexity of a subject to a phrase with currency.

The full range of context and meanings that surround a subject can get sacrificed in this act of reduction. Also, today the profusion of hashtags that populate the digital space has served to undermine the utility of this device. What we see today is a cacophonous clamouring for attention, because of too many hashtags competing to get noticed.

The explosion of hashtags on social media is a sign of our growing need for audiences. We want to be noticed, and for our words to carry social currency. The hashtag is a plea for inclusion, a form of self-tagging that acts as a feeler that we send out to the world communicating our need to be noticed.

We dangle our ideas to the world hoping that the bait will be taken. By making words clickable, they become charged with the potential of articulating collective sentiment. Like the hyperlink before it, the hashtag is not an inert destination but a living gateway to something much larger than itself.

While the hyperlink transports us somewhere else, the hashtag connects us all back to the same place, the mothership, so to speak. As an act that is alive with potential, it is hard to imagine anything else that has greater power. A hashtag can potentially connect one with anyone else in the world who finds interest in what one has to say and make us one with a powerful global current.

It is interesting how the digital world creates its own devices to breathe meaning into itself. It can take the form of a new kind of visual language like the emoji, which creates a new form of communication. Or it can use instruments of the old world to create new meaning. The erstwhile hash sign and the ampersand (@) are examples of this ability to eke new meaning out of earlier symbols.

When we think of innovations, we usually think in terms of technology or processes, not that often of language or in this case, a tiny symbol. Give me a fulcrum, and i will move the world, Archimedes is rumoured to have said. Probably talking about a hashtag.

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