Thursday, September 26, 2013


People once wrote things in brackets to de-emphasize certain text (only for it to draw more attention to itself). The same is happening to the #hashtag. 

Consider the following paragraph: 
A man with a tuft of grey hair is the only one in a cinema hall. He is sitting in the second row on a seat right next to the stairs. He has just landed after an event of great personal significance. But then any intense emotion can only survive until airport security gets its hands on you. And so he sits, barely aware of what he is feeling, in his personal theater, waiting to watch a film reel he had just given the operator asking him to roll when ready. The lights dim. Music is queued. It is a violin leading into a somber sort of symphony, which is perhaps a reflection of his own state of mind. On the screen are visuals of people kissing, in black and white. They appear to be from old movies, presumably from the man’s childhood. He watches them with great amazement, as though it was the first time he is seeing them. For some reason (and he had a shrewd idea why), the visuals were affecting him. Deeply. Very, very deeply. 
I have just attempted to narrate to you the first two seconds of the famous kissing montage from Tornatore’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1989). My writing potential can certainly be brought to question where the poignancy of the description is concerned. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the beauty of watching Salvatore (Toto) break down rests completely on the fact that it was shot on camera as Ennio Morricone tapped his wand on it. By writing it in a paragraph, I only communicated the futility of the exercise: of trying to express in words the beauty of images. You can watch the sequence here.

I write this in reaction to the Fallon-Timberlake parody of the #hashtag, which is currently trending on social media thanks to the many #hashtags taking it forward. It is a tidy video. One can see that their comic timing is impeccable and, as partners, they complement each other. The idea is simple. They simulate an internet conversation offline, physically representing the devices that are, more or less, sacrosanct to the internet as the medium of expression. It is no different than talking about the parentheses, or the now-popular “quote-unquote” which has been co-opted and has almost become exclusive to the spoken word. I am sure there are sketches online that parody the “quote-unquote” as well. I am sure they have done their rounds on the internet, trending thanks to people “self-referencing.” 

As an empathizer of the #hashtag phenomenon, I must say that I was quite amused by what Fallon and Timberlake did. If I am disappointed, it is not with them. If you watch closely, it is not just the video that is trending on the internet, but also a secondary source (Gizmodo) that has published the video in an article titled “Justin Timberlake shows us how dumb we sound when we use hashtags.” It is not even the judgment call that I am disappointed with – for the author says (and I quote) 
That pound sign—which was probably once the least pressed button on a phone's dial pad—has now infiltrated every single social network, every form of text communication and will eventually, override the spoken English language. 
What I am disappointed with is popular misconception. I am also disappointed at the fact that the parody could unanimously be construed as criticism. If either Fallon or Timberlake had wanted to ‘criticize’ the #hashtag phenomenon, they would have had the sense to do it via text. The moment they chose to film a video on it, they had instantly steered clear of anything but oblique impact at best, for it is not the #hashtag phenomenon they were discussing anymore, but the absurdity in the act of co-opting it in the spoken word. In other words, they are forecasting a time when the #hashtag will creep into our speech much like the parentheses and the “quote-unquote,” legitimized by Presidents and Prime Ministers and motivational speakers alike. 

I once fought someone to the hilt (trust me, I did) on his dismissal of the #hashtag. I must admit that my standing up for the #hashtag was in part standing up for myself, much like how his argument rang hollow with scathing personal intolerance, which he was not mindful of. I find myself in those waters where internet memes are concerned. I am saddened by the fact that creativity on the internet has become a random assortment of references. Nothing seems to excite us as much as references do, be it historic, cultural or political, where the subtler and more obscure the reference, the cleverer it is considered to be. 

But then I also know I have to make my peace with it. It is not up to me to define how the human race communicates. Once upon a time they wrote patterns on a wall. Now we are using #hashtags. I do believe, however, that creative expression can only be as robust as the medium. We are simultaneously constrained and nourished by the medium we choose to express in. For instance, this software which tries to imitate the style of Jackson Pollock is only drawing attention to how absurd it is to try re-creating his work in the paradigm of virtual graphic design. Likewise, making a video on #spokenhashtag, first and foremost, draws attention to the act itself, much before offering a comment on the #hashtag phenomenon (which it offers very slightly, in the kind of things Fallon puts in a #hashtag, as compared to the act of putting things in #hashtags itself). Also, this leads me to conclude that it would have been much clearer and a lot more reassuring had the Gizmodo author titled his post "Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake show us how stupid it would sound if we were to use Hashtags in our speech."

But I am sure Fallon and Timberlake, and the author on Gizmodo already knew this. For they are wise men.

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