Language, Code, and Hashtags

“In linking natural language with codes that became increasingly machine-centric, telegraph code books initiated the struggle to define the place of the human in relation to digital technologies, an agon that remains crucial to the humanities today.”

How Do We Think?

-N. Katherine Hayles, 2012


The Ultimate Selfie / Also the most retweeted tweet in history. #oscars


The hashtag is a symbol of how embedded humans are into digital world today. But it didn’t always mean what it does now than it did just a few years ago. The hashtag (#) was originally used in programming as a way of marking lines of notes for other engineers to read when opening up the code file. It was used to mark a special meaning of relevance, and was used to not interfere with the code itself, as the program disregards the hashtagged lines.

Now in social media, hashtags make it possible to group messages and allows people to search for the hashtag and get the entire set of messages that contain it. In Twitter, one can search the “#risd” for all Tweets that contain it. This is useful for someone wanting to learn more about RISD as a school, and what people have to tweet about in the organization. This can also be used on another platform like Instagram, where people can search “#cycling” for all photos related to the topic.


#hashtag / Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake show you what a Twitter conversation sounds like in real life.


#hashtag2 / Jimmy & Jonah have a Twitter conversation in real life. 


The hashtag had just found its home in our language. It has become a practical and cultural shorthand for the digital generation. And only recently did Vivian Schiller of Twitter hint that the hashtag may soon disappear from the service, and the veteran users of the service are not in favor, and find it difficult to imagine a Twitter without hashtags. To see Twitter and news sources have an uproar over a communications feature shows how deeply people feel about a digital language that is clearly so meaningful to them.

It is fascinating to see this generation spend a significant amount of our lives in the digital world, and seeing it affect us in our languages and behaviors. I feel a little weirded out, but I mostly feel excited to see where these cultural changes take us.