The Art of the #Hashtag


The American Dialect Society voted last week to dub #hashtag the Word of the Year for 2012.

When I first heard that news, I winced. The word seems too trendy and tech-focused. I know a lot of people who have never used Twitter and never plan to use Twitter. Do they even know that a #hashtag is what you use to give your Twitter message a subject line?

But I realized #hashtag was an inspired choice when I read Allan Metcalf’s description of how the word was selected in his “Lingua Franca” blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education. After voting on the top words in several categories, the linguists settled on #hashtag over marriage equality as the most “significant or signifying” term of 2012, Metcalf wrote.

I dipped into Twitter last year (with mixed results, as I explained in my last post); at first, I was a bit intimidated by this stream of short messages sent from people I had never met and never expected to meet. It felt like I was catching snatches of conversation on a bus with no context, and I wasn’t sure how to make sense of it all.

Then I learned to look for the #hashtag, which often provided the clues I needed to place the tweet into a category or conversation stream. Something like the Dewey Decimal system for tweets. A #hashtag could serve as a straightforward summary (#amwriting) or offer inspirational insight (#OnBecomingFearless) or provide a twist of sarcasm (#1stWorldProblems).

As more people got used to communicating in 140 characters, they began to realize that the #hashtag concept could be useful far beyond the Twitter field. People started categorizing their posts on other social media sites with a #hashtag, just to help clarify their tone or categorize their remarks. The word—and the concept—spread to TV sitcoms and cable news shows and eventually into the language of ordinary people who have never peeked into a Twitter feed.

As I was thinking about why #hashtag had become such a significant term in our language, I realized that the concept could become a great tool for writers.

No one is going to mistake most Twitter posts for great literature, but practicing the art of the #hashtag could help a lot of writers locate the heart and soul of their message. I often work with writers who have written hundreds or thousands of words but are still not quite sure what they most want to say. They have so many ideas floating around and are so anxious to capture all those ideas that they don’t realize their stream of words will hit a reader like a blast from a fire hose.

I think writers in any medium could find it valuable to practice the art of #hashtag. Next time you’re stuck on a difficult passage or wondering what comes next, spend a few minutes trying to create the perfect #hashtag for what you’re writing. Can you sum up your article, chapter, essay, poem, or novel in a word or two?

Give it a shot; you may be surprised at the results. When you can #hashtag your work, you may find it easier to hack a path for your readers to follow through the jungle of words in your head.


January 8, 2013

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