Ever since I got on social media I have been fascinated with various ways in which this wonderful medium can be leveraged for actual information sharing and gathering. Along came the hashtags and I was elated. These hashtags were like virtual filing cabinets where you could store things and refer back at anytime. But are they useful and meaningful anymore?
Let me start with a disclaimer, I still believe in the immense amount of good that hashtags can do. Having said that, I am deeply mortified and appalled at what they have become today. But to understand the rot that has set into hashtags we need to go back in time a little.
You see, when social media was more social and less media, there was tons of really useful information being shared and quite freely at that. In the early days of twitter, I clearly remember how even the @replies were not private and all conversations were public irrespective of who you were following or not. Then the hashtags happened and immediately became the ready solution for anyone who wanted to build a corpus of what was shared on a particular topic and have it available for reference anytime anyone wanted.
Then the online chat culture evolved and hashtags helped immensely in creating conversation archives that were sorted by domain, time, location and sometimes even the expert who was sharing the knowledge. Web development, films, culture, linguistics, dance, cinema – whatever you could think of, there was a chat and there was a hashtag. The information available was quite literally mind-boggling.
In the initial days, even the media outlets had very creative and actually useful hashtags that they used to drive conversations. There were even movements like the arab spring that quite literally thrived on hashtags when the regime choked all other means of group communication.
Then two disasters set in. Brand consultants started using hashtags like duct tape. Whatever they wanted, they ran to a hashtag. Soon the hashtag became a dustbin that held tonnes of branded garbage that really made no sense whatsoever. Every launch from a mobile phone to a condom to underwear with spots on it had a hashtag and agencies gleefully grabbed this opportunity to trend these things inorganically. Thus leading to total annihilation of whatever the humble hashtag initially stood for.
The next disaster happened when mainstream media took to social media and started finding creative ways to just kill and murder hashtags in a bit to beat their competition. It became an ugly free-for-all. Sometimes there are as many as 25 hashtags from different media houses about the same piece of news. This gets frustrating and utterly annoying for ordinary users like you and me.
So what is the end result? People actually mute trending hashtags regularly to avoid spam and get on with their lives. In effect, completely negating what the agencies and media houses want from the hashtags themselves. The saddest part is that while they are aware of this fact, they are in no hurry to mend ways anytime soon.
So, in summary, a hashtag is like a piece of metal, can be moulded into a tool that helps get things done or a weapon that destroys things. Sadly today, the hashtag is more of an annoying thorn in the back and absolutely useless. But there a few who still use it right and that is where my hope lies. We will soon see the rot give way to creativity and results. That is my sincere hope. Tell me what you think, is the hashtag a creative tool or a thorn in your side now?