You go to write a tweet. It's a bite-sized piece of wit, a challenge to be clever in 140 characters or less. You have the perfect tweet written, and then: you tack on a hashtag. (Think: Tom from NBC's Parks and Recreation tweeting something along the lines of, "Just caught three green lights in a row. #blessed" while driving.)
With the advent of Twitter came the hashtag's heyday. Words or phrases marked with the symbol "#" categorize tweets (or Instagrams, or Tumblr posts, or anything, really) into "tags," helping readers who might not follow you find your posts by checking tags for topics that interest them. It makes sense, right? Especially in the world of microblogging, a way to categorize your blurbs and make them easily accessible to new readers is a revolutionary idea. It works.
The hashtag makes sense online, where certain cites use it for its original purpose. But recently, the little tic-tac-toe of linguistics has made its way into other areas of communication, including places that don't support tagging: Facebook, text messaging, and even casual speech (out loud, one would say, "hashtag: blessed"). Why?
Tagging our thoughts -- usually bits of brainpower already whittled down to a few sentences on Twitter -- allows us to organize them, both online and in real life, in a new way. The hashtag facilitates categorization of thoughts by nature and also by related content, like Tom's tweet, for example. The main point of the tweet isn't about what it means to be blessed (it's about hitting all those green lights), but "#blessed" cues the reader in on the idea that Tom thinks he is blessed as a driver. Related thoughts can usually be communicated in one word when a hashtag is added. For a generation especially interested in brevity, that's a pretty cool way to talk.
It seems to me that the original purpose of the hashtag has evolved, and we don't only use it for Internet categorization anymore. It doesn't matter to us that Facebook doesn't support tagging, and it matters even less that face-to-face speech doesn't support it, either. What we're gaining from hashtagging is a new way to communicate ideas, more concise than ever. We can share, with one funny little symbol, a host of ideas that are merely tangential to our original thought, but that somehow manage to clarify or add to it.
Is this a good thing? Or is this just another reason for those a few years ahead of us to scoff at the allegedly short attention span of our generation? I'm not going to comment on that here, but maybe the 400+ words I wrote on the topic can speak for themselves. I could have just written, "Twitter changes the way we talk. #hashtagging." But, thankfully, there's still some value in the relatively verbose.