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I'm Drew Breunig and I obsess about technology, media, language, and culture. I live in New York, studied anthropology, and work at PlaceIQ.

On “Hashtag” and Remembering the Internet is Awkward

Last night, “hashtag” was crowned Word of the Year for 2012. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, notes:

This was the year when the hashtag became a ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk. In the Twittersphere and elsewhere, hashtags have created instant social trends, spreading bite-sized viral messages on topics ranging from politics to pop culture.

I think hashtag is an excellent choice, but think Zimmer is underselling the decision.

Hashtag exemplifies the awkward ways we attempt to speak so computers will understand.

Computers don’t understand us. They’re getting better, but this last mile is turning out to be a doozy. Siri garbles every third word and struggles with accents, Google trips on words, and Facebook and iPhoto facial recognition systems see faces where there aren’t any. People are messy and the real world isn’t clean. It’s hard for computers to understand us.

The hashtag is us giving them a hand, providing a clue to our intentions they can easily parse. Hashtags are us talking loud and slow in a foreign land. They’re awkward, which is precisely why they’re important to note.

Hashtags remind us that interfaces are hard. When Google makes a promise about Google Glass, remember the hashtag. When Ray Kurzweil brings up the singularity again, point him towards the hashtag.

The hashtag shows that human/machine interactions are a negotiation. They come two steps towards us, we come one step towards them.

The hashtag also illustrates the loneliness of the internet.

But the goal of the hashtag isn’t for the computer to understand us; this is a means towards an end. The true goal of the hashtag is to connect with others, to be discovered, and to be part of a community – all online. The hashtag is us asking the computer for help, for it to put in a good word for us when someone else is searching for pictures, words, or videos we’re posting.

The hashtag is awkward and that’s why it matters. It reminds us how imperfect computer interactions are right now.

29 notesShowHide

  1. conceptblend reblogged this from dbreunig and added:
    I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
  2. juslau reblogged this from sketchdan
  3. sketchdan reblogged this from dbreunig and added:
    The hashtag has definitely become a significant phenomenon today. An entire thesis can be written about this culture and...
  4. rianvdm said: I agree with everything you said, but it’s important to note that this is only half the story. The hashtag has also become a humor device, among many other things. See, for example, nytimes.com/2012/11…
  5. limkeemin reblogged this from dbreunig
  6. joshuaginter reblogged this from dbreunig and added:
    Spot on.
  7. jamtoday reblogged this from dbreunig
  8. tiny-triumphs reblogged this from dbreunig
  9. dbreunig posted this