Are hashtags a complete waste of time or am I just an asshole?
I’m in one of the greatest areas in all of Denver: 9th and Santa Fe. A perfect mix of the old poor and the new bohemian — where the microbreweries and niche-diet coffee shops have only just begun to usurp the chain-link neighborhoods of the pre-boomtown days. “Just four years ago,” Mike Jennings, owner of the local MMA gym (Train. Fight. Win.) says, “we had bars over the windows.”
It’s the romantic margin. It’s the proto-gentrified. It’s the not real poverty — the one that artists like to imagine — that’s still in view. There are no fancy cars. Rather, privilege takes the form of an elected personality, a raw arrogance that says, “We’ve chosen to live this way.” And like all of my favorite bullshit, it’s the kind that tries hard to be beautiful.
A young woman approaches the counter in the coffee shop I’m wasting time in. She’s thin and tight-haired. Yoga pants and a butter-yellow shirt. Just the kind of customer you’d expect in Mmm...Coffee: A Paleo Bistro. One of the owners (it’s a really nice husband and wife thing) greets her warmly. The patron 'hello's back, but keeps her head ducked; she’s tapping on her phone. “Do you know of any good paleo hashtags I can use?” she says.
There’s a pause before the owner replies. I sit in the corner idly judging. Paleo hashtags? Why? Why would a walking, cognizant, non-Portlandia-lampoon human being ask such a thing? What the hell is the point of using an established hashtag to describe this minute’s personal dietary decision?
“Oh, there’s lots, let me see,” says the owner. “There’s #paleolife, #foodnotcrap, #realfoodpaleo,” and she lists several more. She’s not just humoring the customer either, at least she doesn’t seem to be. She’s totally into it. And then there’s me — the twenty-six-year old paleo-coffee-shop-attending scruffy white guy — who should also, demographically speaking, be totally into it.
But I’m not of course. Like I said, I don’t see the point. More than that, I don’t see the motive. There are plenty of things I do that could be described by others as pointless, but these things are usually done for my own silly pleasure (like watching a tutorial on how to do the rumba and dancing to “Jump in the Line” over and over again for twenty-minutes in front of my tired wife while she slips into madness, #lastnight). But even having such inane pursuits, I find it difficult to project pleasure onto attaching a phrase to a pound sign. I guess I’m wondering, What exactly do you get out of it?
Before I begin this axiology, I should clarify that I’m talking about apolitical hashtags, ones not tied to a movement of any potential social consequence. Hashtags like #occupy and #blacklivesmatter have actually been instrumental in spreading political awareness and are probably the only thing halting some young people at the door of total apathy.
Researchers have shown that you can track and even forecast the potential of political movements by analyzing twitter feeds. And that makes perfect sense. Hashtags are the new banners, the new rally-cries; they’re what happens when a generation content to sit on the branch puts its beak to the megaphone. And, as regards most tools of dissent, our corporate overlords have caught on. Recently brands like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Nationwide have started plugging hashtagged phrases into million dollar ad campaigns (with mixed results; see Forbes).
Corporate and not, these entities have a rhetorical purpose behind their octothorpe chants. All of them are vying in a crowded marketplace for the ever dwindling attention span of the commoner, who, in some cases, has taken to mocking them.
Indeed, I also understand the need for tweets that scoff at the tweet system. Self-aware, ironic tweets (perhaps the acme of hipsterdom, aside from not being on twitter altogether) make sense to me, as with any attempt at humor. Just like advertising, comedy has to work in the vulgar parlance to be successful. Hashtags, for better or worse, are part of our generational discourse, of our language.
I struggle with that last bit. If they are a part of our language, then who am I to jeer at them? Am I just being a #grandpa here? Maybe…
Then again, in front of me there is a grown adult woman consulting with another grown adult woman on how to use eight criss-crossed lines and a phrase to describe her dining experience. I don’t know if the defense, “Well, it’s language,” can face that kind of absurdity. What would George Orwell say?
And if you think this is some kind of anomaly (and before I started this article, I was on your side: i.e., optimism) there are hundreds of sites (like this one) that provide (and even sell!) stratagems to private citizens looking for the best way to vapidly express themselves.
I take a walk around the neighborhood. Pitbulls, noses stuck in the wild yards, asleep. Guys with gray tank tops sipping generic soda. And suddenly, the uniform stumpy clapboard houses of the old give way to the new market. The more money, the more names. Renegade Brewing is selling souvenirs. A guy walks by, his body lifted on Nike shoes. Every art gallery has some creative sign, decorated with wild flourishes, intersecting greens and reds. I look down and notice that I’m wearing a faded cotton RVCA t-shirt and expressing myself as vapidly as I can.
It’s true. We capitalists love our big brands. We’re more likely to buy Cheerios over CeriO’s. We’re also likelier to have a more pleasurable experience if we associate our actions with a recognizable brand. “Coke” and “Pepsi”? These are words. In one word, these are language.
And, as the study I just linked discusses, if you put this language in front of people, their soda tastes better. This isn’t just a soda. It’s a widely, lingually confirmed soda. It has a place in das kapital and in our world, this soda. The same is true for my stupid t-shirt and, I assume, for a piece of chicken, once you stick #paleolove on it.
What the hashtag offers is an immediately enriched (might be too strong of a word) experience of a thing, because that thing is now more than a thing. That thing is now an idea, with a potential to catch the attention of numerous others it agrees/disagrees with (a potential that would take a biblical miracle for a regular piece of chicken to achieve).
Is it vain? Yes. Is it selling out? Yes. Is it pointless though? No. Pleasure within any system is still pleasure. And if I want to call it out as being trite or phony I need only look down at all of the hypocrisies I’m suddenly clothed in.