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To #hashtag Or Not To #hashtag?

Another day, another news feed. You are indulging in that especially unrewarding form of procrastination – mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook wall. Spurred on by a baffling belief that the next auto-refresh will bring something interesting, something new, you come across an unwelcome visitor.

Friday night. Let the #banter commence! #jagerbantz

The bile begins to rise.

A ‘friend’ cull really is in order, I think. This ain’t Twitter, there’s no hashtag functionality built into Mark Zuckerberg’s book of faces. Y’see, what you’ve done there is the social networking equivalent of bringing a banjo to a Dubstep rave. What’s wrong with you?

But, I’m sorry to say that this is not a rant. In fact, it’s an admission. A concession to the dark side…for there is a rapture in the heathen hashtag. I know, I know, allow me to explain.

The modern world is driving us further and further into the online realm. If we’re not moving cash around via online banking, we’re purchasing gig tickets through an online retailer (cussing at hidden card charges all the while) or using the Wi-Fi on our smartphones to book flights for our annual week in the sun. If you look back to just five years ago you’d struggle to find many people who wouldn’t think the idea of buying into a completely virtual currency was absolute insanity.

It seems we’re still working out how to deal with this mass migration of stuff from the physical into the virtual. Problem is, the adaptation is quietly pushing us to the frothing rage we exhibit upon seeing a rogue hashtag on Facebook, or receiving an automated text message telling us that we’ve been mis-sold PP-fucking-I. To us ‘digital natives’, the generation born into the online era, these examples of ill-informed virtual spawn are the preserve of out of touch people who haven’t quite grasped the concept of ‘technology’ yet.

But perhaps it’s us digital natives who’ve got it wrong…

Hashtags are for Twitter. You never add your immediate family as ‘friends’ on Facebook. Youtube? Specially reserved for the wacky (and often downright weird) alter ego you’d never let your boss see. There are strict rules and conventions that govern the social networks and online oddities we subscribe to. You can see how someone new to it all can get mixed up. But for those of us lucky enough to know our ‘followers’ from our ‘friends’, understanding the byzantine rules of the virtual game is affecting us in a most peculiar way; we’re developing split personalities.

One minute we’re massaging our inner wit on Twitter, the next we’re partaking in a spot of professional begging for an endorsement on Linkedin. While one hand is frantically tapping away at our iPhone’s Facebook app, hopelessly perpetuating a comments feed on a heated political argument that we know we can’t win, the other is guiding our laptop’s touchpad through vines of Ryan Gosling refusing to eat cereal.

It’s all so bloody fractured. In days gone by people were able to get by fine with a single character, a definable personality – “oh yeah, that’s Tom, he’s a chess fanatic with a brain the size of Silvio Berlusconi’s rap sheet.”

But now we’re faced with Tom the Facebook philanthropist, Tom the raunchy lion tamer on and, of course, Tom from Myspace – remember him?

Confused? It’s only natural. Andrew Gascoigne, radio DJ and multiple social media user, worries that people in his online network might be getting the wrong impression:

“I try to be as consistent with status updates as I can; if I think it’s funny I say it. Sometimes I hesitate but I always press send. I hope people who check in often get the trend. People who don’t probably think I’m a right dick.”

And he goes on to admit that the different personalities he exhibits on social media don’t really mix:

 “I don’t link my Twitter or Facebook to Linkedin – I know people who do, but I think that could be career suicide! On Facebook I often post the people’s names who I’m searching for as status updates. So if you look back through my profile, it’s essentially a list of people I wanna shag.”

It feels like we’re losing ourselves. All these virtual identities are simply what we imagine, or more likely desire ourselves to be. The cool connected socialite with 1000 friends on Facebook bears little relation to the real bloke behind the profile who works from home Monday to Friday and pops out to the pub once a week for a few pints with the lads. It’s not rare to find yourself putting more effort into crafting an erudite status update than you do visiting the cultured museums that your status captions.

To quote Network’s prophetic protagonist Howard Beale, this is mass madness. We’re becoming shadows of our imagined identities, losing our natural selves in the frantic scramble to keep juggling the varying and contradictory online personalities that we’re compelling ourselves to be.

Of course, it’s absolutely normal to act differently in different situations. Our friends, families and colleagues all see very distinctive sides of our personality. But in the age of the URL, these ‘separate personalities’ are now virtual rather than physical, allowing us the time to deliberately think about and formulate them – they are conscious, rather than subconscious. In the past, a personality would be the result of a natural reaction to being in a situation where we are forced to lick our boss’s arse. Nowadays we’ve the time to consciously think about the best way to lick that executive derrière. This time lapse may come in handy every now and again, but it also means that we aren’t being honest about how we actually react to the world’s displays. That’s not living, that’s just lying.

Which brings us back to the humble #hashtag. Why do we hate to see them pop up on Facebook? Because they belong to a different identity, they belong to the perpetrator’s Twitter self, not their Facebook self. But hashtags don’t actually have to ‘belong’ to anywhere. Twitter users began using hashtags to group conversations long before Twitter made them a feature of the site. Zuckerberg himself seems to be taking notice of the growing use of hashtags on his social networking site and is currently busy trying to incorporate them into Facebook too. Facebook hashtaggers, like the early Twitter revolutionaries before them, are defining the world of social media – you and me, the ‘digital natives’, are letting the warring personalities of social media define us.

Hashtags are going cross-platform and cross-identity. It’s probably time that we retired our surreal multiple personalities and joined in the fun.


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