November 03 2010

Making a hash of it: The (diminishing?) power of words

At the risk of sounding like an Edwardian school boy, I think Twitter is magic. I mean this in the supernatural sense (fitting, as it was Halloween last weekend). The mysteries of the internet have always struck me as evidence of occult intervention somewhere - some particularly intuitive websites send my eyes scouring the page for evidence of pentagons - but Twitter really takes the biscuit.

courtesy of

Twitter gives words the sort of power that has traditionally been associated with witchcraft. When a tweeter writes a particular formula, their words create a genuine effect. However, ancient runes have been replaced by a very modern symbol: the hashtag. This tool bridges the divide between words that communicate and words that perform an action. The hashtag may have originated as a way for participants to organize material on Twitter, but it has developed real power.

When Livestrong wanted to raise awareness of cancer, they tweeted the words #beatcancer. Each time the hashtag was consequently repeated, PayPal and SWAGG donated $0.05 to cancer charities. Suddenly, words didn’t just say something, they did it. Formerly only magic users have been attributed the power to use words to such tangible effect.

Courtesy of

It could be that this unprecedented power is a symptom of larger scale decline. For a time the internet was fertile ground for writers. Text-only blogs abounded as technological restrictions limited communication to text. Now however, many brands use text merely as a gateway into a multimedia experience. Thus we come to another use of the hashtag. Recently, an Orange campaign offered to record certain hashtagged tweets as songs. In doing so, the campaign reduced text to the status of prototype; not quite the real thing.

Of course, there are benefits to an increasingly visual online experience. Key examples are increased usability and ease of access. Firstly, in contrast to a dense paragraph of text, video narratives require less initial commitment from the user. Thus, in using visual media, designers and developers are reacting to the requirements of casual web users. Another instance of these benefits is something we at Open CC have developed with the Whitechapel Gallery. We have enriched an exhibition with additional text, images and film which are accessible to smart phones. This is enabled by QR Codes - 2D barcodes which, when scanned, circumnavigate the need for a textual URL. The aim is to provide the user with engaging content immediately - without the requirement to type an address on a fiddly keypad interface. The reward, without the effort.

All this goes some way to explaining why, when I read media blogs, I am often struck by the apparent consensus that text will soon be obsolete. The future, we are told, lies in digital rich media - brimming with images, videos and interaction. We have seen that whilst text is used increasingly as a tool for linking one source to another (rather than as a reliable documenter itself), it may soon become redundant even for this purpose. Perhaps, then, the magical power of the hashtag is not only a triumph, but a swansong.

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