Think of all the ways we have in everyday conversation to take the wind out of our own sails. A chuckle, an ironic tone of voice, a shrug of the shoulders, or even the strategic use of “air quotes” can all convey the message, “Don’t take me too seriously.”
It’s harder to get across a self-effacing tone when we communicate online. Typing out a message lacks those expressive nonverbal cues that linguists call “paralanguage.” You might resort to emoticons to help soften your tone, or playful abbreviations like “JK” for “just kidding,” but the arsenal of self-deprecating signals in the electronic world is a paltry one.
Enter Twitter. Only five years old, the microblogging service has, since its early days, impressed linguists with its rapid-fire innovation. Despite the 140-character constraint on tweets — or perhaps because of it — Twitter has become a fountain of lexical creativity, as users concoct novel shorthand techniques and spread new cultural memes with blinding speed.
Among Twitter’s triumphs is the reinvention of self-mockery. By hijacking a feature known as the hashtag, Twitter users have found new ways to inject tiny packages of self-directed sarcasm into their tweets.
Hashtags are a Twitter convention that began four years ago, when Chris Messina, now at Google, suggested using #, the “hash” or “pound” symbol, as a compact way to track conversational threads on the service. The idea was that everyone tweeting about, say, NASCAR or Steve Jobs could also include a hashtag in their message — #nascar or #stevejobs. Then anyone who wanted a quick survey of tweets on that topic could pull them up. The hashtag created an instant index of subject matter in the Twitterverse.
That original innovation became wildly popular, and with popularity came a kind of rhetorical “mission creep,” as the writer Susan Orlean put it in a piece praising hashtags on The New Yorker’s blog last year. These days, hashtags can serve to mark running jokes or collaborative word games, where thousands of online wits try to come up with the funniest #songprequels, for instance. (Puzzle writer Francis Heaney chimed in with “How Are We Going to Get Across These Troubled Waters?”) And, as they became more popular, they’ve emerged as a rhetorical device of their own — adding a kind of ironic metacommentary, a counterpoint that subversively undercuts the main message of the tweet.
Suddenly, a humble indexing tool became a sophisticated new technique for self-deprecation in type. Some of the most popular hashtags in the past year have been self-inflicted sarcasm, such as #mylifeisaverage appended to tweets recording painfully mundane daily drama, or #mylifeissohard, acknowledging you’ve just lodged a complaint clearly not worth complaining about. Celebrities have jumped in as well: Kanye West poked fun at his famous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards — as well as his famous vanity — by hashtagging his own quip #greatesttweetofalltime.
Any user can make up a new hashtag, and in fact many have made an art of the one-time wink to their followers. But hashtags can also allow a kind of collective exercise in abasement, whether real or feigned. As an example, there are the “problems” hashtags that puncture one’s own sense of entitlement, such as #firstworldproblems, #middleclassproblems, #fratboyproblems, and #whitegirlproblems. Thus, from Renee Portnoy of Boston: “27 pairs of jeans and not one of them is exactly what I’m looking for #firstworldproblems.” While this sort of sardonic hashtag offers the possibility of using humor to cast a self-critical eye on the role of race and class, some critics have pointed out that it can also be an easy way for privileged people to let themselves off the hook.
“Fail” has long been a key term of critique in the online chat and Twitter culture, and sure enough, the #fail hashtag (or more dramatically, #epicfail) has also been turned ruefully inward, to laugh off one’s assorted flubs and foibles. Surprisingly, even corporations can get in the act: Earlier this year, Toyota owned up to a public relations problem by using the hashtag #toyotafail in its official Twitter feed.
There are certain kinds of PR disasters, of course, that even the perfect hashtag can’t help you with. Former representative Anthony Weiner, who was forced to resign his House seat in June because of Twitter-based indiscretions with female followers, was known as a master of the self-deprecating hashtag. Promising to post a photo from his bar mitzvah to celebrate his 10,000th follower, he disparaged his own “Jewfro-ed” youth with such hashtags as #rockinthemad70swidelapels and #sonotworththehype.
It might seem astonishing to people outside the Twitterverse, but Weiner’s initial reaction to the controversy over his notorious photos was to wave it all off with a hashtag: “#Hacked!”, he wrote on his Twitter feed the day that the story broke. No amount of lighthearted downplaying could stave off the scandal that engulfed him, of course, and he ended up issuing a real apology, followed by a real resignation. Some kinds of sorry, it turns out, don’t come with a hash symbol.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com and the former On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine.