I Heart Hashtags
When Twitter first started to become the New New Thing, much was made of its 140-character limit. (For those unfamiliar with the Twitter format, it is a little broadcast or update message—”tweet”—that can consist of no more than 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation.) Like most of life, tweets run the gamut from banal to sublimely clever. Naturally, adults immediately noted that teenagers, already fluent in unintelligible text-speak, would presumably now no longer be able to compose a thought beyond Twitter-length. The end of civilization was surely right around the corner.
And then, all at once, those same adults decided that Twitter wasn’t going away—and jumped on the Tweetwagon. My husband, who works in the news business, said that it was as if there was one week last year when Twitter was The Story—a moment when every journalist started tweeting, started realizing that you could tweet a link of a story you had just written or broadcast and the news of that story would flit around the Twitosphere and then, boom, suddenly you had many more readers or viewers. Soon even dinosaurs in Congress were in on the deal. I mean, Nancy Pelosi, for heaven’s sake, tweeted her refusal to Eric Cantor’s tardy invitation to be seat buddies at the most recent State of the Union Address via Twitter. I thank @GOPLeader for his #SOTU offer, but I invited my friend Rep. Bartlett from MD yesterday & am pleased he accepted.
Literary circles were quick to pick up on the trend (except YA—”young adult”—novelists, who’d been there right there from the start, of course, along with the kids they write for). Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm) crafted a short story, “Some Contemporary Characters,” consisting of 153 tweets. 153 tweets? How hopelessly old school. At the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival, the literary journal One Story held a contest for the best short story told via a single tweet. Now there’s even a Twitter site called One Forty Fiction, which is, you guessed it, stories in 140 characters or less. (Of course, Ernest Hemingway would have thrived in the Twitter age, with his shortest of short stories—“For sale, baby shoes, never worn”—which is all of 32 characters, including spaces.
But wait, there’s more
So Twitter is firmly here and doesn’t seem to have destroyed the English language so much as given us yet another way to scream Look at Me! And here is where I sheepishly admit that I’m a relative latecomer to this party. That I was an initial hater, a reluctant joiner and am now somewhat addicted to my Twitter feed, though I try to mitigate my addiction by not following many people. For me, it’s all about the exhibitionism, the cleverness of my tweets. But it’s not just the tweets. It’s gotten worse. I have become obsessed with the little addendum at the end of the tweet. The hashtag.
Hashtags are little general subject headings, often at the end of a tweet, preceded by a hash mark—# (also known as a “pound sign”); they show up blue after your tweet is sent, like a link (for more explanation, check out this New Yorker short take). Sometimes they’re official, relating to a specific news story or event—for example, a conference might have its own hashtag, so that organizers can ask attendees to use that tag whenever tweeting about the conference. Hashtags show what is “trending” (i.e., being most tweeted about) on Twitter. My aforementioned husband tells me they are “casually structured meta data.” Okay. They can be news-related (as I write this, #Tahir is trending, which makes sense given what’s going on in Egypt, but so is #8MillionMonsters, which, is baffling. I’m clicking on it now. It has something to do with Lady Gaga. I’m still confused….)
Anyhow, I attach hashtags to many of my tweets, less in hopes of becoming part of a grand Twitter trend (I have about 2,000 followers, so not likely) than because they are nice little mini-epilogues, even if they only make sense to me. When I’m discussing New York City’s response to snow removal, I write #blizztards. When discussing being stuck at home with my children and their barf and not knowing if I smell, I’m #oldladyshutin. They’re my own personal jokes, even if I’m the only one laughing.
Hashtags: the new air quotes!
But sometimes, when I extend the joke outward, I get rounds of laughter back. During a recent back-and-forth on Twitter, I was asking my tweet-friends for reading recommendations for an upcoming trip; I wanted good books that wouldn’t leave me feeling dirty. I ended with this tweet: And feel dirty=I don’t want trashy. I have nothing against sex in my books. Clearly! #playmelikeacello.
Play me like a cello makes no sense if you’ve never read my novel If I Stay, but if you have, you know it refers to a pretty steamy sex scene. I got crazy response to that hashtag. Not enough to make it trend, perhaps, but there’s still something very gratifying about making people virtually laugh—and in 15 characters, not 140. When you spend the day home alone with nothing but your characters and your kids’ barf, it is something small to strive for.
So yes, I walk around and see things and think of them not as novel ideas, not as 140-character tweets, but in little air-quoted hashtags. I think in hashtags. #PleaseDon’tTell—GAYLE FORMAN