It was Twitter, in fact, who invented the hashtag, a system of cross-linking topics with the use of the "#" symbol before a key term, such as #LosAngeles for all conversations concerning the city of angels, or #LeftShark when referencing the awkward costumed back-up dancer from Katy Perry's Super Bowl performance who somehow captured the heart of America. Hashtags give our conversations context, measure the moment, and give individual tweeters the opportunity to gain notice on the main stage of public thought.
All that we know. But all rules for language shall be broken, amended, and given new purpose by human creativity. Sometimes hashtags add emphasis, or emotion. "Stuck in line at the DMV #OverIt." Sometimes they convey a second meaning--playful irony, or self mockery. "Knitting a Tea Cozy #YOLO."
In a column for The Atlantic this month, "Why Men Are Retweeted More Than Women," the journalist Jessica Bennett argues that men and women use hashtags differently. "A male Twitter user might tag that observation with something like #linguistics, #gender, or maybe #hashtags," she writes. "A female user is more likely to add something like #duh." Men are more likely to use "traditional" tags--those that link to conversations without frills, whereas women are more likely to use "expressive" tags (feelings, jokes, commentary). Although women are arguably doing more interesting things with the hashtag linguistically, Bennett says their mode of expression might in fact be hurting their influence. Because traditional tags are all about connecting with others, they make men more likely to be seen in broader circles, and to collect more RTs and followers to boot.
Bennett's argument examines data from an influential linguistic study by Allison Schapp, a doctoral student at NYU. In it she names the two types of hashtags: tag hashtags (aka traditional) and commentary hashtags (aka expressive). 77 percent of male hashtags are tags, and for women, the majority of theirs (at 59 percent) are expressive. Here are some other interesting findings from Schapp's study:
- Users ages 11 to 40 are the most likely to use hashtags. Ages 11 to 20 represent the highest density, with 25 percent of tagged tweets coming from that group alone. (Ages 81 to 90 represent a mere 3 percent or so. Good for Grandma!)
- The majority of people use one hashtag per tweet, and when there's only one, it's likely to be an expressive tag (#Yep). The more hashtags per tweet there are, the more likely they are all traditional tags. Surely you've seen a catch-all tweet like this out there: "Happy Holidays! #Xmas #Eggnog #Gifts #Santa #Festivity." Turns out it's a type.
- If it's a commentary tag (that's you, ladies), it's most likely to be positioned at the end of a tweet, and not the beginning (Who Does #That? as opposed to #Who Does That?)
Because hashtags have become interesting to linguistic anthropologists, we now have data to tell us who uses hashtags and how. The results are interesting to the common observer and marketers alike. If you're trying to reach the heads and hearts of middle-aged women, for example, you need to speak to them in their language--and hashtags can help us find where their conversations are, as well as tell us how they talk. (Hint: Put a hashtag at the end and keep it expressive, #Duh).