Why We #Hashtag


“The temperament of our generation can be summed up by the hashmark,” writes Piper Marshall in her recent post for Artforum’s Scene and Heard. Hashtagging has become ubiquitous, the fodder of jokes, as much a part of our virtual and actual speech as lolspeak or like. The hashtag has found it’s way into text messages and Hip Hop culture (#swag?). It’s infiltrated the hasty scrawls of taggers on the actual walls that form our physical world. Marshall goes on: “If the ’90s were full of “quotation marks” indicating irony, a decisive sarcasm and a distance from the opinion of norms, our current climate is dominated by pithy punch lines that summarize the solipsist’s always already uploaded narrative.” She describes some kind of shift: no longer do we engage with air quotes, we throw a mention out and it hits the wall – blowing up and splattering, or falling flat on the concrete.

But what are we really doing when we mark a thought with #?

In a media and cultural environment fueled by the one-off, the hashmark functions as a kind of communal claim to public space. We are already constantly presenting ourselves to the world around us: we are beings of the brand, the public profile, the brief bio and a network of intertwining links. Our news is the headline. We consume images through the rapid fire pace of continuous stream, reblogging, rebtweeting, linking. In some ways, we are grasping at a way to archive a pace we are only ever just barely keeping up with. The scrapbook we are creating – the tucking away, the clipping, attempting to remember – all happens while everyone watches.

We have been handed down a limited perceptual framework. Our experience is very much overdetermined by a lifetime of consuming prefabricated imagery. Advertisements are part of the visual texture of almost every surface we touch. We watch people with authority cling to the remnants of a clearly dysfunctional economic system; one they are so deeply entrenched in that they suffer from a severe failure of imagination, unable to invent effective alternatives. The talking heads and journalists continually misread, misinterpret, and miss the mark altogether. We’ve been suffering from information overload since Johannes Gutenburg revolutionized communication in 1440. Yet, that sense of anxiety has never been felt in a way quite like this before.

“We suffer not from information overload, but filter failure,” says media critic Clay Shirky. The past decade has yielded such rapid change in how information is disseminated, organized, and consumed, that our available tools inevitably fall flat. It’s why we’re entrenched in start-up culture. We need to find new ways to understand the world around us, then possibly one day change the bad things about it.

The hashtag is reclamation of the bits we find important, relevant, and worth remembering in an infinite sea of pieces and fragments. When we #, we are committing to something, which we have a fair amount of trouble doing in general. We are declaring ourselves part of a collective unit that agrees on some sentiment, whether that may be #Thursday, #UKnowUHungryWhen, or #LondonRiots. When we hit those two keys and make that quadralinear mark, we are placing ourselves along a continuum of public thought.

The language and reference points we have gathered are so often created separate from life experience. When constructed sensation and continually reinforced caricatures are brought back into our own very real lives, there’s a gap. This dissonance between a flawed framework, incapable of helping us digest information or understand our own feelings about it. It’s an all-consuming sensation, to see a continually illogical breakdown between what’s said to happen and what actually does. It’s why the breaks, the incompatibilities, the clearly disjointed are what attracts us: our humor juxtaposes the crass and heady, our taste the high and low, our politics the passionate but paralyzed. We feel that inscrutable space in our every move.

In that gap is where we live. And until our relationship to the infinite information around us starts feeling complete, one with reciprocity and respect, we will grab for any little piece that does make sense and #, #, #.

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