Future Tense

Hashtags Are the New Scare Quotes

What are you really trying to say?

Shutterstock/Mircea Maties

The field of hashtag studies has had a lively few years. We heard about the pound sign’s poetic possibilities, how it went from organizing Twitter conversations around prebuilt themes to flavoring text with emotion and irony. Once a way to structure communication, hashtags have flowered into a form of tonal seasoning. You might compare punctuation marks like the period (now a blind dot of rage as well as a sentence-ender) and graphical features like CAPS (WHICH FEEL SHOUTY).

A lot of these migrations between the worlds of structure and voice relate to written language’s lack of nonverbal cues, says linguist Ben Zimmer. “Hashtags, or phrases like LOL, do for Twitter what gestures, facial expressions, or tone would do in face-to-face conversation,” he explained, which is “create a meta-commentary on the main message.”

When Slate‘s Julia Turner profiled the hashtag in 2012—months before it would be named the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year—she noticed that it allowed “the best writers to operate in multiple registers at once, in a compressed space.”  She concluded, “It’s the Tuvan throat singing of the Internet.” (It is also, per this Tonight Show skit, part of the wise-guy patois of IRL bros.) My metaphor’s more mundane, but I want to compare Twitter’s favorite crosshatch to a diacritic symbol that’s always held dual citizenship in the realms of tone and structure. Hashtags are becoming the Web’s scare quotes. 

Remember scare quotes? According to Wikipedia, they are “quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to imply that it may not signify its apparent meaning or that it is not necessarily the way the quoting person would express its concept.” Scare quotes tell the reader to pay attention, because there’s more to the enclosed text than meets the eye. Mood-wise, they’re a bit ironic, like a typographical prescription for a grain of salt.

So too the hashtag, which has become, among other things, a strategy for announcing distance—sometimes a sarcastic distance, and sometimes the distance that results from repurposing a familiar word or phrase. “They’re a rich vehicle for self-deprecation,” Zimmer claims, pointing to tags like #firstworldproblems. “They give you cover to say something others might make fun of you for, because you’re laughing pre-emptively at yourself.” He mentions that even the world-class egotist Kanye West snuck the hashtag #greatesttweetofalltime into his feed, as if to bait us with glimmers of self-awareness.

There’s something unpleasantly and intrinsically grandiose about broadcasting your thoughts to the entire Internet. Hashtags like #fail and #notenoughcoffee soften that. They advise readers not to take you too seriously. Even in a private email to a source for this piece, I found myself trying to channel the sign’s humility. “If you have a moment to talk earlier,” I wrote, “will you please let me know? (#deadlines. Sorry.)” There, the hashtag was meant to interpose some space between me and the bullying reminder that I was on the clock.

“It seems like you were also invoking our shared knowledge of deadlines,” said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, author of the book You Just Don’t Understand, and the recipient of the email. “You were mediating your stance toward that word by saying: Oh, you know deadlinesThey’re awful.

She was right. I’d counted on the hashtag’s ability to cast automatic doubt on—to plant scare quotes around—the concept it preceded. But I was also trying to connect to Tannen: to highlight an idea we both understood, and to invite her to join me in sighing over it.

Hashtags are great at soliciting skepticism. My colleague Jessica Winter recently tweeted a line from a New York Times article:

Her only real commentary on the quote came from that hashtag, but it conveyed much. In an email, she explained that she’d reached for the mark because it dramatized the craziness of the columnist’s assumption: that “a category as absurdly broad as ‘moms and kids’” might serve as “a discrete political issue … of particular interest to a woman.” It was a graphical eye-roll. Likewise, activists co-opting the #myNYPD label did so to skewer the department’s efforts at branding. “Right, ‘my NYPD,’” they seemed to scoff, holding the words up to the pound sign’s funhouse mirror.

Yet between self-deprecation and satire lies a middle ground, a more diffuse type of irony. “I don’t use hashtags sincerely,” wrote the National Journal’s Emma Roller, when I reached out to her about a tweet she’d sent. Her post consisted of a personal anecdote—she’d made a colleague cry by showing him a sappy video—and then the marker #MissionAccomplished. It’s true that the tweet was sending up the hollowness of a tinny cliché. But it was also half-genuine, even as it laughed at itself for reviving that slogan, and at all of us for understanding and enjoying the performance. Layers of commentary and distance alternated with ones of participation and simple storytelling. (Twitter: such an #onion.) In the same way, scare quotes aren’t like regular quotation marks in that they don’t necessarily signal the presentation of someone else’s words. What they enfold may or may not be what the writer thinks.

Which ambiguity is why both hashtags and scare quotes seem meta-to-the-core, and why some of the most charming uses of hashtags comment specifically on the way we create hashtags. #Smarttake and #YOLO are funny re-appropriations because they evince a familiarity with how people behave on social media. My colleague Dan Kois recently tweeted: “#cancelkidsonthequietcar.” “I wanted to express my general feeling of rage,” he explained, “while also making it clear that I recognize it’s lame to feel strongly about this.” His solution was couching a critique in a faux-social media campaign, along the lines of #cancelColbert—imagining his protest as a dumb piece of clicktivism but voicing it anyway.   

Of course, the distance opened up by a hashtag doesn’t have to be ironic. Sometimes it just signals that a word will be dispatched to mean something unusual or context-specific. (See Arianna Huffington’s branded use of the hashtag “thrive.” She’s talking about a trademarked wellness program, not general spiritual flourishing.) When Jessica Bennett wrote about #blessed in the New York Times, observing that the spa retreats and Fashion Week tickets that often prompt the designation are less tokens of divine favor than humblebrags, I wasn’t surprised. The new bride on honeymoon at Saint Barts isn’t insisting she’s blessed, at least not in the literal Saint Teresa sense. She’s trying to say she’s “blessed”: sunkissed and better than you. If the hashtag halo of “something-like” or “almost-but-not-quite” implies a sort of humility here, it also plays up the artificiality of the gesture. Look at me grasping for a way to frame my achievements with grace. Make that #grace. The truly gracious hashtag artist probably wouldn’t send that tweet.