Untangling, then becoming entangled with #NAT5HRUAE

Hashtag. Hash … tag. A symbol and a few characters.

I was pretty sure when I wrote this post about hashtags and how they were used, that it was unfinished business. When the following tweet popped up in my timeline, I knew it was time to pay a return visit:

An initial inspection of Malcolm’s tweet reveals it to be a quote tweet (QT), in which the original tweet is embedded in full (although not shown above), together with Malcolm’s comments. (As a separate issue, perhaps the QT is one way of sidestepping the 140 character limit whilst performing interesting additional work, and is probably worthy of a post in its own right?) In the embedded tweet, we see the original hashtag to which Malcolm was referring, plus two additional hashtags that he used in his own tweet. Apart from their structural difference, are they also performing different work? Before I begin to unpick that, let me first say a little about the exchange which unfolded when I asked Malcolm whether he knew anything more about the hashtag. Now that Twitter threads an exchange of tweets, you’ll be able to follow the whole thing for yourself by clicking through to the above tweet, but let me summarise.

The reason I contacted Malcolm was that I wasn’t sure what #NAT4HRUAE meant. Unlike many hashtags, the meaning of this one wasn’t explicit; unless of course you happen to be familiar with the context in which it evolved. Malcolm pointed me to a tweet which helped with that

Malcolm then went on to explain some other hashtags he has encountered and the function they perform. This included some which associated tweets with a particular school, curated resources on certain themes or at specific times. These different elements can also be concatenated within a single hashtag like #CPSdigilearningweek or #VPStech. Some schools use hashtags to strengthen home-school partnerships like #DunipaceHome. Soon after our exchange, @LHS_English and @EnglishPhs joined in with further clarification by explaining the origin and structure of the #NAT5HRUAE tag, and outlining what it was for. NAT5H relates to National 5 Higher qualifications and RUAE is an abbreviation for one of the criteria within the exam specification – Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation. This really cleared things up for me, because as an outsider, I struggled to interpret the hashtag (I’ll return to this later). The function of the hashtags was to encourage students to critically read non-fiction by providing quick access to ‘interesting and appropriate’ articles.

Using a hashtag to curate content in this way means that students aren’t obliged to have a twitter account in order to benefit from the links which are being shared. Nor do they have to sift through  the broader mix of content that each of the English department accounts might be sharing. As a side issue, it was interesting to be involved in an exchange with an English department account, without knowing the person (people?) managing it. I guess we do that all the time when we’re interacting with Twitter accounts of people we’ve never met, but somehow that’s different. The profile associated with a personal account provides embodiment by proxy; we get a sense of who they are from the information they’ve provided, assuming of course that they’re not engaged in identity play. Whenever I used to interact with departmental accounts in the school where I worked, I knew who was managing the account, which meant that I was always conversing with them, through the account. With these two English departments, it was different … but I digress. So although the hashtag began life to help out students in a specific school, because the structure of the tag was not specific to that school, it could be used more widely by other schools, teachers and students. This meant that others could use the hashtag to contribute and provide appropriate resources for any student who tuned in. Of course any student of English around the world might benefit from the resources being shared, in spite of not being part of the target audience, but would they? The hashtag arguably excludes all but the 300 000 students studying for NAT5 English, by being somewhat indecipherable to others (like me), or by providing resources which might only be of marginal use. ‘Exclusion’ is not so much the intention of the hashtag, but a consequence. It was after all conceived to act as a signpost and filter to save time for the students for whom it is appropriate. And in writing this, I begin to wonder …

What would a sociomaterialist say?

In the extended Twitter exchange about #NAT5HRUAE, the discourse surrounding the hashtag positioned it as a thing; an object. It was ‘created’ or ‘used’ or ‘changed’ by the people and institutions with whom it was associated. The same is true in much of the literature, so the hashtag is a ‘tool to serve its users’ (Veletsianos, 2016) or it helps people create ad hoc publics (Bruns & Burgess, 2011), affinity spaces (Greenhalgh & Koehler, 2016; Rosenburg et al, 2016) or indicate stance (Evans, 2016). As I closed the preceding paragraph, I began to talk about what the hashtag did, not what people did with it. The sociomaterial sensibility I need to bring to my study requires me to do that; to apply the principles of general symmetry and treat human and non-human actors in the same way i.e. to

employ the same explanatory repertoire for the observation of quasi-objects that take on natural or social attributes in the networks in which they are enrolled. (Clarke, 2002)

Here then I need to begin to consider what are hashtags doing with the people, rather than what are the people doing with the hashtags. Or even what the hashtags are doing with each other, or tweets, or Twitter … or me!

Let’s return to #NAT5HRUAE for a moment. It was given birth and released into the world in a tweet by an English department Twitter account, which presumably mediated the action of an English teacher. The hashtag, teacher Twitter and departmental account together form an actor-network held together by the desire to share reading resources with students of the school (and as discussed, potentially a wider network). The need to share and access those reading resources is the practice around which the actor-network has assembled and is sustained, but one might argue that it is the hashtag which enacts the crucial role. It provides the conduit through which teachers release the resources; the marker which students seek; a marshaling point for the resources themselves; an invitation to a wider community; a clickable, interactive button which sucks the resources into a single stream. It does that, in association with the other members of the actor-network; remove it and the endeavour falls down. It has the capacity to reach beyond those for whom it was primarily intended and ‘translate’ or connect others into the actor-network. As discussed earlier, it can also serve to exclude others by acting as a boundary marker, making it clear that the resources it marshals are related to NAT5 English are are unlikely to be of interest to former Physics teachers. Although that’s not quite what happened ….

So what? (does this have to do with professional learning?)

The ‘so what?’ question is obligatory for a PhD student. What relevance does this have to what I’m studying and why should anyone care? #NAT5HRUAE is not about teacher professional learning, at least not in the first instance. The way that hashtags operate however is.

Whether it’s helping to draw together a community, providing a rally point, filtering content or celebrating achievement, the hashtag works hard. Type ‘MFL Teachers’ in a tweet and it is no more than a constituent part of a message or statement. Type #MFLTeachers into a tweet and it becomes a clickable link which executes a Twitter search for all tweets containing that hashtag and takes you to a page listing the results. Adding the hash symbol made Twitter do something different and possibly cajoled those reading the tweet to click the link and learn more. If they are interested in what they see, they come back for more by perhaps adding it to their saved searches or adding the hashtag to a Tweetdeck column. Whilst the hashtag continues to deliver content of interest, they remain enrolled in the actor-network. They may become more active participants, the hashtag now becoming their means to contribute to the learning of others. Or they may work on the hashtag’s behalf by retweeting tweets and increasing the tag’s influence and reach; this is how knowledge spreads.So whether you want to participate in a #satchat discussion, share or find resources related through #socialstudies, need to find out about #moodle or become affiliated with other #esl teachers, there may well be a hashtag with which you can work.

The #NAT5HRUAE hashtag also did some unexpected, unplanned work. It recruited me into its actor-network, through Malcolm’s tweet, required me to enter into an exchange to learn more about it, and finally to produce this reflective account which will cement its existence and extend its reach into an entirely different space. As part of a doctoral study, maybe it might make it’s presence felt in academic discourse or even wheedle its way into a printed thesis to sit in a university stack?

A symbol and a few characters.
Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. E. (2011, August). The use of Twitter hashtags in the formation of ad hoc publics. In Proceedings of the 6th European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) General Conference 2011.
Clarke, J. (2002). A new kind of symmetry: Actor-network theories and the new literacy studies. Studies in the Education of Adults, 34(2), 107-122.
Evans, A. (2016). Stance and identity in twitter hashtags. Language@internet, 13
Greenhalgh, S. P., & Koehler, M. J. (2016). 28 days later: Twitter hashtags as “Just in time” teacher professional development. Techtrends, , 1-9.
Rosenberg, J. M., Greenhalgh, S. P., Koehler, M. J., Hamilton, E. R., Akcaoglu, M., Wright, N., & Forbes, D. (2016). An investigation of state educational twitter hashtags ( SETHs) as affinity spaces. E-Learning and Digital Media, 13(1-2), 24-44. doi:10.1177/2042753016672351
Veletsianos, G. (2016). Three cases of hashtags used as learning and professional development environments. Techtrends, , 1-9.

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