Up early(ish) on the first day since August that I’ve had to really breathe for a minute, and I can’t stop thinking about finding a better way to categorize my email. Gmail makes it relatively easy to organize messages like you might papers in a file cabinet, but I’m suddenly 200 unread messages in, and find myself unable to keep up. I realize everyone will meet (or already has met) their email saturation point differently, but I will always remember the Fall 2011 semester as the time when two things happened when it comes to digital communication: 1) I couldn’t keep up with my email for the first time, and 2) hashtags became commonspeak.
INBOXES: When it comes to email, I’ve always been an immediate responder. This habit has its plusses and minuses, but it’s just the way I operate: someone asks something of me, and I respond. In contrast, I never could understand, until very recently, how people could leave correspondences unanswered. I finally get it, and find myself missing emails from friends and colleagues. I fear the problem is only going to get worse if I don’t find a better way of getting to every correspondence that needs getting to.
I don’t think I’m an expert organizer in any way shape or form, but I am pretty anal retentive and love organizing and reorganizing things — if I’m at a loss for what to do to combat this problem, what are other people doing? Is it one of those things that’s happening to everyone but no one really talks about? Am I just relegated to a future of not being able to fully read every email that comes through my inbox? I don’t like that.
I’ll report back if I figure something out, but for now I want to talk about hashtags for a second.
HASHTAGS: There was a point roughly a year ago when the word hashtag wasn’t yet part of my vocabulary. I haven’t done any extensive reading or empirical data gathering about how my experience measures up to that of the general population, but until I joined Twitter (a little less than a year ago), the # symbol was something I used when proofreading to note that a space needed to be inserted, or while navigating an automated phone messaging system. It was not on my radar as a categorizer, and I hadn’t yet seen it used in titles, subject lines, or emails. In an attempt to further understand what was then an elusive phenomenon, I asked the Twitter community for help in my third-ever tweet on February 20, 2011:
Needless to say, I got no response about my confusion, and quickly realized that the hashtag is one of those neat reference tools that has a limited shelf life. It’s not something that you send out to the universe and get an answer from immediately; rather, it can be used in a fleeting moment to connect people around a specific subject/idea/question/concept, but it might not always work as you intend it.
As I see it, the # sign has become something that’s going to continue to evolve as more people become fluent in how to use it. We’re getting closer to that tipping point, but it seems that many individuals still see Twitter as a revolving door of narcissistic Facebook updates, and thus the new(ish) usage of the # as an extension of that. I couldn’t disagree more. While I don’t tweet on a daily basis, Twitter has been a useful tool for me when trying to stay up-to-date on events, protests, gatherings, teaching techniques, etc., in real time. And speaking of protests, the Occupy movement is part of what normalized hashtags for me.
While I was pulling my hair out over my overflowing inbox this semester, my colleagues and I started using #OWS and other hashtags as normally as we might other words in emails. Slowly but surely, the # symbol is making its way into our daily language.
So while I’m considering how to categorize and code my growing pile of data for my dissertation, and simultaneously trying to get a handle on my inbox, I can’t help but wonder about where digital communication will take us. What symbol will enter our language next? Will we eventually have an alphabet comprised of letters, numbers, and symbols? I’m curious….