I saw someone write “#jealous” instead of “jealous.” Why? I guess one reason is that the writer is worried about laying his feelings bare, so he’s encasing his comment in a thin shell of humor. (Hashtags are nerdy; the irony of such a mundane hashtag; etc.) Might also be an attempt to be clever or different, albeit one that’s more than played. But the theory I like most involves the same phenomenon I wrote about in a post on the word “metastasize.” In that post, I tried and failed to derive the etymology of the word:
My silly theory demonstrates the rise of a colloquial sense of meta meaning “self-referential” as in metadata, metasearch, and “that’s so meta.” In this age of instant photos, check-ins, status updates, and countless other ways of symbolizing our own lives, I’m not surprised that this form invaded my brain and crowded out the good old Greek.
Self-reference: that’s the essence of a hashtag. It’s a bit of meta-data in the data itself. The writer’s not content with one level of meaning; he also wants to comment on his first thought, to assign it a category or suggest membership in a trend. Whether the poster of “#jealous” knew it, I think he had been gripped by this impulse. He didn’t just say “I’m jealous”; he also said, “There are other people like me.” The second part is a defensive move: It asserts the appropriateness of his comment and suggests that his emotion, while unattractive, is not uncommon.
To me, the trend toward self-reference isn’t a good one. Most of the artifacts I listed in my prior post—check-ins, status updates, etc.—are redundant. They are, frankly, a waste of everyone’s time. More importantly, they separate us just a bit from the heart of the matter. Instead of immediately understanding the poster’s feelings, we have to parse the hash, consider the second level of meaning, and discard it as empty irony or self-defense. If repeating this procedure encourages us to wrap our own thoughts in reference, the trend snowballs, and instead of a more “open and connected” world, we’re left with indirection and separateness.
In “The Image,” Daniel J. Boorstin lamented the proliferation of “pseudo-events”: contrived happenings such as press releases that exist only to be reported. He worried that pseudo-events might crowd out real, spontaneous events, leading us to lose touch with the truth. “#jealous,” then, might be called a pseudo-thought. Its menace is that we lose touch with each other.