As an event amplifier, I tend to think of the hash tag as a discussion space for a group of conference delegates who are dispersed across time and space. However, I have recently been challenged to think about the hash tag in more concrete terms, which has prompted me to explore the different metaphorical functions that this symbol has undertaken within its role as an online conversation element...
A Piece of Furniture – Conversations often happen around physical objects or pieces of furniture, such as tables or water coolers. Different pieces of furniture have inherited different social conventions. A round-table discussion at a conference will have very different set of conversational conventions to the discussion around the office water cooler. In this way the object itself becomes a metaphor for the type of conversation that it facilitates. People often gather around a hash tag as if it were a piece of furniture, but we are not yet at the stage where the hash tag has become synonymous with a certain type of conversation – it is currently a multi-purpose piece of furniture, which creates issues of its own.
A Place – This is probably the most common metaphor for a hash tag. The hash tag is a virtual chat room or a space for a specific discussion or event. People gather there at a certain time to talk, report and expound. You can revisit any time, but the room will feel empty if others are not sitting around chatting at the same time.
A Magnet – A hash tag can act as a magnet, attracting topical comments and conversations and binding them around an agreed anchor point. The participants may not be connected or even talking to each other, but their tagged comments get pulled into a wider, collected discussion.
A Filing System – People often use hash tags as ways of filing their comments and conversations into categories which can then be searched and revisited.
A Curation Tool – A hash tag can add context to a comment and allow it to be collected together with others for analysis and presentation within a curated resource.
A Sign – Hash tags can be used by individuals as conversational devices to qualify a statement or indicate humour, either as a shorthand way of adding context or to replace lost intonation and body language so that their meaning is not misinterpreted. In face to face conversation we do not usually need to hold up a sign saying: “this is a joke” or “I'm being sarcastic now”, but we do have various non-verbal indicators and more than 140 characters.
There are probably others I have missed, but what this shows us is that this simple symbol is taking on subtle, often nuanced meanings in different circumstances to help us visualise an online conversation. Understanding and reading across these different metaphors is not only important as we encounter and use this symbol, but also for our understanding of how we visualise the new models of conversation made possible by the internet.