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Dark side of Hastags

The power of the Hashtag!

Anyone that has a social media presence (so, like, 4.2 billion people worldwide!) would have stumbled across the humble hashtag. Those little clickable #words that accompany posts by your favourite influencers or pages you follow. But do you actually know why they’re there?

Predominantly used (but not isolated) on photo/video-sharing or microblogging platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, hashtags are considered a form of ‘user-generated tagging’ that enables individual content to be grouped by a theme.

So, that harmless #Blessed at the end of your Instagram post? It actually ‘tags’ your content to join more than 141 million other posts on that single platform alone. And that number only grows by the minute.

Since its first occurrence on Twitter in 2007, hashtags are now a widely accepted cultural phenomena. In June 2014, the word hashtag was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary, as “a word or phrase with the symbol # in front of it, used on social media websites and apps so that you can search for all messages with the same subject.”¹

On the surface, hashtags are harmless. Used correctly and with the right intentions, it’s hard not to agree. But like anything to do with social media, hashtags also come with a dark and seedy underbelly...

Personally, I love hashtags. I love their ability to introduce you to new and exciting conversations within particular topics. I will often click on a hashtag of interest and explore the world of content it opens up. However that access also means they can bring unwanted attention.

Recently I was chatting to a friend of mine who, unfortunately, suffers from a chronic illness, and he asked me, “Is it just me, or do you receive heaps of unsolicited advice in your DMs?” (DMs = Direct Messages, another feature of social media platforms).

Upon further discussion he revealed that he was being targeted by people who were peddling miracle drugs and practices to help “cure” his chronic illness. He doesn’t know these people – in fact, they aren’t even friends of friends within his network. These people* have found him via his tagged content.

(*Side note: there is an argument that, perhaps, these “people” aren’t people at all – they’re what’s known as bots or internet robots. Very smart people can build what is known as algorithms, which creates these internet personas to act and talk in specific ways when reacting to specific content. Hashtags 100% make up some of this behaviour, but I don’t have the knowledge nor the technical expertise to explain how and why this works...)

This is what I call the dark side of hashtags.

Unfortunately despite being as connected as ever thanks to the Internet age, we couldn’t be more separated as a civilisation. That’s because many people are comfortable sitting within their silos, unprepared to seek out and challenge other sides of the argument to perhaps find a middle ground. So we surround ourselves with people who think and talk like us, and the gap widens.

One could argue that social media has played a heavy hand in this behaviour. It’s easier than ever to find groups of people who think like you, talk like you, believe in the things you do, and flat out ignore and dismiss anyone who thinks, talks and acts differently.

We live in dangerous times my friends.

So while I don’t want to come across as ‘preachy’, what I’d love to see is more empathy. Don’t immediately dismiss people who aren’t on the exact same page as being wrong. And definitely do NOT go looking for them on social media in some kind of predatory manner. We don’t know what other people’s deal is and there’s a danger is simply acting on assumptions. Challenge your thinking and I guarantee if we all did that a little more, the world would be a much better place.

And finally, if you’re someone who likes to send advice to complete strangers, here’s my advice to you: Stop it. And also, get a life. While you might think it comes from a “good place”, no one is asking for it.

It also might be a good idea to research that hashtag you’re looking to use on your next Tweet, just to make sure your content is contributing to a wider discussion you’re happy to be a part of...

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