From "Air Quotes" to #Hashtags

Today, in the networked culture of social media we are moving from communicating through the "air quotes" of ironic exclusivity to the #hashtags hyperlinked interconnectedness. 


You said that irony was the shackles of youth. 

R.E.M., What's the Frequency, Kenneth?


Ironic distance was my adolescent affliction 

I was a teenage culture vulture. I gobbled up all the popular media I could get my paws on, from cable TV, to magazines, to CDs. Culture was for consumption, made by professionals, and then broadcast or distributed for us to buy. Sure there were "social media," but that meant swapping cassette mixtapes with friends or making crudely xeroxed zines

I liked pop culture, but as a disaffected teenager straddling the line between Gen X and Y, I more accurately "loved" it. I lived life and consumed culture through the lens of "air quotes." Nothing was what it seemed. Everything had a hidden reference, but only for those "in the know."

In reaction and critique of the popular culture that I was consuming, I started making creative works with my friends. We made music that referenced all the different genres we were soaking in from the radio and MTV. We played our tunes, tongue squarely in cheek, loudly in the key of ironic distance.

In reaction to seasons 1 and 2 of The Real World, we made "The Surreal World," a student film straddling the line between parody and pastiche of reality television. Everything was a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, get it? Pity the poor fool wasn't in on the joke. 

Sincerity was the height of uncool


Maybe not more sincerity or solidarity...but certainly more sharing

And then things changed. The Internets happened and started to get big in my teenage years. I roamed from BBSes to Prodigy to AOL to the wide open World Wide Web. Later on, I quickly jumped on the social media bandwagon. I went from my "air quotes" phase to my #hashtag phase. Is it just me, or is our whole culture evolving too?

The internet and social media certainly didn't make me or our culture more sincere. If anything, parody and pastiche are thriving, spurred by the increasing ease to remix and self-publish cultural artifacts. Certain subcultures are also just as inscrutable as ever to outsiders. The cliques of 4chan and Subreddits can be as high context as the high school hierarchy of Scottsdale suburbia was for my teenage self.  

The internet became my escape portal from parochialism. It opened my eyes to new possibilities, expanded my sense of community, and changed the way that I express myself. But not just me, the internet has changed our culture.

Increased online connectivity and more frictionless sharing have created a new kind of culture where LOLcats and Gangnam Style can spread like wildfire. The internet has taught us to share but also has taught us to be skeptical. After all, we can always check Snopes to verify rumors or just f#%king Google it to find the truths we seek. The internet has also become the arena for social movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring to organize their supporters on the ground and to tell their story to spectators around the world.   

But I am no cyber-utopian and the internet is no City upon a HillN00bs can still get themselves rickrolled or  pwned. Nigerian scams show that there are suckers and scum in every ecosystem. And of course, we also now know that Big Brother is watching us through his PRISM

#Hashtags are the new black

While "air quotes" were the defining symbol of my teens and twenties, #hashtags represent the way we are communicating today.

Air quotes encapsulate an ironic in-joke meant to exclude those outside the circle, on the other hand, hashtags represent an open system. Anybody can use them to tag their social media content, anybody can search for them. If you don't know what a certain hashtag means, just Google it. 

Hashtags are much more than just social media metatags. They are a way to link and organize information and references, but also to connect us. In this way, a hashtag can serve as a symbolic bumper sticker or banner signaling our interests, identities, and ideological affinities. A hashtag also serves as the semantic and social glue that links us with related content and other people with similar interests.

Hereare some examples. Charles Bentley, writing in Impatient Optimists, the Gates Foundation blog, suggests 7 Hashtags Every Armchair Advocate Should Follow, which range from #socialgood to #SocEnt. These hashtags serve a dual role as the both the campfire around which these interest communities gather as well as the library catalog cards (remember those?) that organize their musings. 

Emergent movements like #GivingTuesday and #SuspendedCoffee use their respective hashtags simultaneously as their name, their rallying cry, and their connective tissue. Hashtags are tools that help turn a meme into a movement. In the case of #GivingTuesday, the hashtag/name of the campaign is an invocation to create a new ritual of giving by redirecting the shopping fervor of the preceding Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

#SuspendedCoffee takes a Neapolitan custom where customers can order an extra coffee or meal for a stranger and turns it into an international phenomenon. Social media users can use the #SuspendedCoffee hashtag to spread the word about the social practice, document their own giving at participating coffee shops, and also share stories of human generosity. As the tagline of the campaign says, "it's more than just coffee," it is creating a new word, a new ritual, a new way of connecting an existing human impulse to share. Even Starbucks has gotten on the Suspended Coffee bandwagon (sort of)

While the use of hashtags represents an open participatory system, we must also remain vigilant in safeguarding this inclusivity. As the recent controversy over Tumblr's iOS app banning #gay, #lesbian, and #bisexual hashtags reveals, the degree of freedom that we have to use hashtags to share content and convene socially is determined by the underlying technical infrastructures that make hashtags work. This echos Lawrence Lessig's maxim "Code is Law."    

What's your air quotes or hashtag story?

Addendum: Artifacts from the Air Quotes Era

Exhibit A: Best Shots by Hepnova

A compilation of my early musical work with a band called the Ronald Raygun (later renamed Hepnova). Perhaps a more apropos title would be "Songs in the Key of Ironic Distance." #MusicMonday

Exhibit B: The Surreal World

A movie I made circa 1994 with my summer camp friends that walks the line between a parody and a pastiche of what was then still the relatively novel format of reality television. #RealityCheck