Hashtags are a huge example of how the internet is changing society – for the better. They aren’t just a bit of technology: they’re truly part of language, and they represent a fundamental shift in the way we think. We deal with way more information than ever before, and that’s forced us to become much more critical about what we believe – or even what we bother to read in the first place. Critical thinking, once an academic exercise, has become part of our day-to-day life. And that’s nothing short of society getting a whole lot smarter, in just a few short years.
Whaddaya mean, “social metadata”?
Metadata means “information about information”.
In a social context, metadata is the “back story” behind a particular piece of information. (There are other, more technical applications of the word ‘metadata’, but I’m focusing on the socio-linguistic aspect of metadata for now.) Who said this? To whom? What were they trying to accomplish by saying it? What were their underlying beliefs? Was it said in private, or published in the paper? The answers to these questions are metadata.
Belief by default vs. belief by choice
To ask about the metadata – to “consider the source” – is to think critically. When we don’t think critically, bad things can happen. Unfortunately, blind acceptance is the easiest path, and thus a well-travelled one. It’s especially common in the absence of multiple viewpoints. If I’m living in a small European village in the 1700s, and every.single.person I have ever met in my whole life believes the Christian god exists, I will probably believe it too. If it’s 1960 and everything I read or see on tv says communism is evil, I’ll probably assume that’s the case.
But if I’ve read Lenin, I might question what I’m hearing. In the 20th century, we started gaining access to more information, and we began to say “wait a minute…”. We started to realize there were a lot of people with other religions, and they couldn’t ALL be evil, could they? When we get conflicting information, we’re forced to stop, think, and consciously decide what we believe.
Critical thinking: an academic exercise
Metadata was still far from being part of daily life, though. By the 80’s we’d coined the term ‘critical thinking’, and schoolchildren were encouraged to try it out – but it was mostly an academic activity. Outside school, the average teenager took their friends’ words at face value. English majors learned about deconstruction; linguists spoke of the medium and the message; but the average person pretty much accepted whatever they read in the newspaper. We compartmentalized metadata; we’d consider it when we had to, but only as an extra effort; not by default.
But – regular readers, say it with me now! – the internet changed that. Suddenly, we had so much information to choose from, we needed metadata to help us sort through it all. We can’t possibly read every single search result; we need to know more about the website – the information’s source – before we spend time consuming content. What kind of site is it – news, opinion, humour? Who wrote the information? What are their goals? How credible are they? Online search got us thinking about metadata a few times a week, instead of every few months.
Hashtags: metadata made fun!
The last, greatest step came with Twitter, and hashtags. Suddenly, metadata became part of everyday speech. We can search for posts about a certain topic; posts of a certain type; posts with a certain agenda; posts with a certain tone. Trending hashtags give us an entirely new way to measure meaning: not the credentials of a particular source, but the sheer volume of ordinary, individual sources (people) sharing the same information.
In fact, not only are we considering the metadata of what we read, we’re even analyzing the bias and rhetoric of our own communications, as we write them! Teenagers, once regarded as the most self-centered demographic on the planet, tag their own posts as #toomuchinformation or #complainingagain. Talk about a new level of self-awareness! Critical thinking isn’t just a useful strategy: we’re so comfortable with it, it’s actually become a form of humour.
When kids use critical thinking voluntarily, to joke among themselves, there’s no question of whether they’ll apply it to the news they see on tv. It’s become automatic. This represents an incredible, unprecedented evolution in our communication and thinking skills. Compared to ten years ago, we’re holding ourselves to a way smarter standard!