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Is will.i.am’s ‘#willpower’ the Death Knell for the Hashtag?

There should be a law that adoption by the ghastly will.i.am immediately signals the absolute official end of a phenomenon’s cultural credibility. As such, it’s interesting in a mildly queasy way that he’s chosen to bless his fourth solo album — working title: Black Einstein — with the oh-so-hip moniker #willpower. And, just in case you didn’t get the fact that he’s down with the Internet kidz, its lead single is called “#thatPower.” Oh yes, dear readers, will.i.am is all about the hashtag.

This seems like an appropriate moment, then, to reassess what the omnipresent hashtag signifies in 2013. It started life as a way of aggregating Twitter posts on a given subject — a function that was never envisaged by the site’s founders, and one that both Twitter and third-party developers scrambled to build into subsequent iterations of the site and their clients. As such, its initial emergence was a fascinating demonstration of how the Internet can devise functions for a site never envisaged by that site’s founders.

These days, of course, both its meaning and its usage have evolved well beyond those original confines. The phenomenon of people using hashtags on Facebook, for instance — where they don’t form links and thus have no actual utility at all — demonstrates that they’ve attained a whole new meaning, a fact that’s clearly of no surprise to anyone who actually uses social media in general. They even crop up, terrifyingly, in actual speech, which means that the hashtag has a) joined the ranks of “oh em gee” and “ell oh ell” as Internet phenomena that have crossed over into vocal language and b) probably also been responsible for at least one person being punched in the last 24 hours.

What their new meaning is, however, is difficult to pin down, because it’s is entirely up to the user — there’s no semiotic signifier/signified relationship here in the way that there is for, y’know, words. A hashtag can indicate sarcasm, irony, humor, branding, context, and so many other things that it’d probably give Ferdinand de Saussure conniptions. As such, its evolution exemplifies the way that, as trends are adopted more widely, people put their own spins on them, with the result that the original meaning is diluted and sometimes — as in this case — completely lost. These days, the hashtag exists only as a signifier that you’re of the same mind as other people who use it. And so, by divesting it of its meaning, we’ve made the hashtag a universal trend.

In this respect, the hashtag phenomenon rather echoes the wider question of the sharing of Internet memes, of which it’s only one of many. There’s been a theory doing the rounds of late that people don’t share Internet memes because they find them funny, but because everyone else does. Take the “Harlem Shake,” for instance — there’s clearly no way to measure this, so it will remain forever in the realms of supposition, but I’d be willing to bet that at least a significant minority of people sharing the song in all its interminable permutations didn’t actually like the bloody thing — they were doing it because it was the thing to do. If, as an artist (or, more likely, a marketer), you can find yourself such a snowballing trend, then there’s the tantalizing prospect of monetizing it.

Which brings us, neatly, back to will.i.am and his hashtags, because his album title comes across as hopelessly outmoded and largely clueless. He’s not the only celebrity to fall afoul of this — the current prevalence of hashtaggery rather recalls the period in the late 1990s when bands and other prominent cultural figures adopted the “.com” suffix in an amusingly clueless grab for Internet-y credibility. This trend reached its nadir with the likes of Marillion’s marillion.com and Cher’s not.com.mercial, and has largely died off since, although it still rears its head every so often. I suspect we may end up looking back on #willpower in the same way, as the moment when an Internet-based trend strapped on its waterskis and took a flying leap over a shark.

As a coda, though — funnily enough, just as we’re reaching peak hashtagging in popular culture, the hashtag has reminded us of its original utility. Much has been written about the role of social media in the coverage of the Boston bombing, but one thing’s for sure: for all that it was a mass of confusion and chaos, Twitter was by far the best way to keep up to date with what was happening in Boston, so long as you could sort the relevant tweets from all the other shit clogging up your feed. And the best way to do that? Why, hashtags, of course, which allowed those of us who wanted to follow last week’s developments in real time focusing our feeds on #boston or #watertown.

This was something of a throwback to the early days of Twitter, when the platform (and the hashtag in particular) facilitated the spread of information about Iran’s Green Revolution. The hashtag’s progress has been a sort of hyperspeed linguistic transition for the Internet age — it’s taken just under six years to transition from a Twitter phenomenon that arose organically and had actual practical utility, through a mildly amusing ironic spin on the original meaning, to an omnipresent trend used in so many ways that it basically has no utility at all beyond a vague connotation of pop culture savviness and hipness. The question is, will overexposure of the will.i.am variety eventually kill off the hashtag entirely, or will its (sometimes urgently necessary) original function triumph?

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