Update(finally:) Comments closed below. Followed up here.
Explained in less than 140 characters: What’s #irritating about #this sentence?
It kind of looks like a representation of someone with food in their mouth while they talk.
I’ve been asked about a half-dozen times in the last couple of days what’s behind my curmudgeonly policy of removing people from my Twitter list who use # signs embedded in their messages. Why do people do this? According to the Twitter Fan Wiki: “Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. They’re like tags on Flickr, only added inline to your post. You create a hashtag simply by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: #hashtag.” There’s also a site, hashtags.org, that lets you track individual hashtag words.
Key phrase here — “only added inline to your post”. Imagine what Flickr would look like if all of the metadata was visually stuck to your photograph. Or what your blog would look like if you had to have a character before every word in your text that was also a keyword. Ick.
As I was polling Brian Oberkirch this morning to get a gut-check on just how curmudgeonly I am on this subject, he pointed me to this NPR story. It’s about a technique that scientists can now use to trace your life’s movements in time and space by the isotopes in the DNA found in your hair. Since clouds in different parts of the country have different isotope levels, if it’s been affected by rainwater the water you drink and food you eat writes something of a record of where you’ve been into your hair. Wild. As Brian succintly put it via IM: “The isotope count is a permanent record. So that is metadata…that in no way interferes with functionality.” It doesn’t change your hair color or do anything at all to your hair visibly. It’s there, but it might as well not be because you can’t see it. Brian added “…Ambient metadata ftw.” It’s several minutes later and I’m still sitting here marvelling at both the smarts behind this new technique and at how well Brian’s example crystallized the way things should be with metadata.
I want my Twitter to remain as human a form of communication as possible. I read and follow the people I follow because they’re primarily publishing for the immediate hearer, not for some database somewhere or machines rigged up to listen at particular frequencies. There are plenty of tools that allow you to mine the data in Twitter without getting in the way of the flow of conversation. Twitter’s “track” functionality allows you to receive updates any time a particular word pops up in Tweets, and persistent searches like Terraminds will pull in via RSS whatever search you like. And there are any number of apps in the cottage industry that is Twitter add-ons that will help you find things in the Twitterverse. The functionality gained here is not worth making Twitter messages ugly and cluttered. Metadata needs to live outside of the line of fire.
There have been few enough people I have unfollowed for using Hashtags that I can still remember all of them. That’s been about six out of the 200 people I follow. Some of them I follow in other ways, just not on Twitter anymore. If Hashtags became widely adopted, I’d probably have to rethink my stance but that would really bum me out on Twitter in general.
So both because I don’t want to see those # signs littered throughout messages and because I want to register my dislike for invasive add-ons like this, I unfollow people when I see them using hashtags. I’ll certainly add you back if you ask nicely. It’s a zero-tolerance policy up front, but then there’s some leeway on the back end. It’s just my preference to have my Twitter be as human eyes-friendly as possible, and to guard against systems that threaten that. It can’t be an accident that Twitter’s developers have shyed away from visible metadata and markup, with the possible exception of the @username convention, which itself is more like grammar than metagrammar.
Chris Messina has written about using them in disaster relief coordination and I can’t say I have a huge problem with that. When bad things happen, people flip out and anything that can help pull people together is a positive. I certainly wouldn’t stop following people in the middle of a disaster because I saw them using hashtags. And my analogy of slurred or impeded speech extends here — in an emergency you’ll hear all sorts of verbal utterances that would be considered irritating or inappropriate under normal circumstances.
If you want to follow me(and don’t use hashtags :)), you can request to follow me at http://www.twitter.com/extraface. I wish there was a way Twitter allowed you to send me a message providing some context, but in the meantime you might consider dropping me an email as well, just to say “hi! I’d like to read your tweets.”