Metaphors for the Humble Hash Tag

Hashtag The humble hash tag is a web object which is developing its own literacy connected to the various metaphorical interpretations it takes on in the wild.

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.

Transliteracy: TV to Online and Back Again

I think most of us will agree that in order to succeed in an increasingly multimodal environment, we require more than alphabetic literacy skills. Researchers, practitioners, educators, learners – would all agree that being transliterate and that concurrent ability to read across media and modes helps us navigate the 21st century more effectively.

Thinking about transliteracy and the reading and interacting across platforms is always on my mind…even when watching a bit of television. What I've noticed recently is a not so subtle attempt to draw viewers from the TV to the online environment, with a drive to bring this same viewers back to the TV. There are two current examples I have in mind.

First: Toyota. In a television ad. Toyota asks its viewers to share their car ownership stories on Facebook. Here then, viewers are moving from TV to the internet. But, it doesn't stop there. Once a month Toyota will choose a viewer's story which will then appear on a TV ad. as well as on Facebook. So viewers (i.e. customers) are moving back to the television. This must be an example of transliteracy and a certain kind of level of transliteracy where viewers interact as well as read in the online arena.


Second: Sutter Health. An American not-for-profit health care system asks its patients and employees to "share" their stories because "everyone has a story." Again, the tv ad. directs people to share their stories online at the Sutter Health or Facebook sites. Similarly, a portion of the stories will be chosen to air on tv, directing the viewers from the online social environment back to tv. 

Based on the ads aired by both Toyota and Sutter Health, customers are transliterate. They are able to move from one platform to another. However, is this ability synonymous with a deeper critical transliteracy? What is the ability to explore, interpret and question these information resources and how do we help teach, support and encourage these abilities?

As stated in the 2009 Horizon Report, " increasing globalization continues to affect the way we work, collaborate, and communicate. . . . Increasingly, those who use technology in ways that expand their global connections are more likely to advance, while those who do not will find themselves on the sidelines."

Note: Toyota image from Toyota Facebook page. Sutter Health image from Sutter Health site.

The Shallows and how I stopped reading it in favour of gazing out of the window

Shallowscoverthumb2Last week I was very pleased to get hold of a copy of Nick Carr's new book The Shallows just in time for a long train journey. Great. I'd have time and space to really absorb it without distraction. The reality, however, was rather different, because for the first time I became acutely aware that it was actually the book itself that was distracting me from the real world. This is how it happened.

The flyleaf of The Shallows, subtitled 'How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember' states that the book is a 'revelatory reminder of how far the internet has become enmeshed in our daily existence and is affecting the way we think'. Carr spends the first hundred pages or so outlining the history of writing and reading along with a summary of recent neuroscience research.

It was an enjoyable survey but as I read I was also aware that something was really nagging at me. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon as my train wound its way south through the English Midlands, but I wasn't seeing any of it because, as they say, I had my nose in a book. Green meadows and golden fields passed along my peripheral vision in a moving ribbon of countryside but I didn't really absorb the view because I was reading a book about how distracting computers can be. In one sense you might say that I was proving Carr's point that the wired condition makes it difficult to focus any more, but in another sense I ask myself whether that really matters.  Early in the book, Carr quotes a brief aside by Duke University Professor Kate Hayles about the reading habits of her students, but I don't think he refers to her work on hyper and deep attention in which she notes that "it is not far-fetched to imagine that the trend toward hyper attention represents the brain’s cultural co-evolution in coordination with high-speed, information-intensive, and rapidly changing environments that make flexible alternation of tasks, quick processing of multiple information streams, and low thresholds for boredom more adaptive than a preference for concentrating on a single object to the exclusion of external stimuli."

This was my problem. I wanted to read The Shallows. I was enjoying reading it. But I was acutely aware that I was missing what was going on outside that narrow range of vision. Eventually I realised that I wished I'd bought it as an audiobook so I could listen whilst doing other things, rather than be confined to a reading posture for hours on end.

As we passed through Basingstoke, I finally closed the volume I'd been leaning over for three hours, took out my iPhone and earplugs, and tuned to my collection of podcasts. While I listened to an episode of The Forum, I checked my email now and then. Beyond the train window, rabbits came out to feed. People walked their dogs through meadows. Roads began to fill up with rush-hour cars, and early evening lights shone in the distance. With all this going on simultaneously, I finally felt like I was back in the world again.

Postcript: I'm looking forward to finishing The Shallows very soon but admit I am somewhat bemused by the fact that it was this, of all books, which for the first time jolted in me a real sense of dissatisfaction with print.