Hashtags are taxonomic and pedagogical tools (with citation standards to boot). The Twitter hashtag was born in 2007. Invented by Chris Messina (then with the consulting firm Citizen Agency, now an open web advocate for Google), the first tweet with a hashtag read as follows: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”’. As Messina himself explains in a discussion group on the question and answer website Quora, he was trying to find a simple way for people to engage in group discussion. One that would work whether you were tweeting from your mobile phone or your bells-and-whistles iMac. And one that would be as easy to follow as ignore. Popular hashtags include ‘#fail’, which is usually used humorously to point out either your own mistake or that of someone else, and #nom a hashtag based on the sound Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster makes when he eats cookies, marking a moment of culinary delight.

In 2010, art historian Ben Harvey observed that Twitter hashtag ‘#arthistory’ had been almost entirely dominated by US college students complaining about their art history classes, teachers or homework. Having monitored the discussion stream for several months, and despite finding some positive discussion, he recorded a high incidence of tweets like:

@BURNSmanJR Bout to attend the worst class I scheduled –#artHISTORY — #worst
@timbod2003 I hate #ArtHistory, that’s why I skip 90% of the classes, and still have an A in the class
@skeletonelle I can honestly feel my brain atrophying as I sit here. I could be doing productive things right now. #arthistory #isawful
@darraghrose This class is the bane of my existence #arthistory
@blastmaster94 #ArtHistory is a pointless class for the type of art Im going to be doing…
@DedicatedPraise Sheesh i actually have to read tonite.. -_- #ArtHistory #BlowsmyLIFE
@IsaDoesntTweet #arthistory #death #endoftheday
@thesalaciousJ #thingsthatpissmeoff #arthistory

Part (potential) academic tool, part play-thing, the hashtag is a complex entity. There can be a deep sense of irony or critique in using a hashtag. For example making up a word or combining a set of words into a tag that nobody in their right mind would actually search for, proposing — tongue-in-cheek — the reification of something highly specific or incredibly banal is very popular. (Harvey’s example Tweet by @thesalaciousJ shows this: “#thingsthatpissmeoff #arthistory”). Although students might well have been opening up a backchannel behind their teacher’s backs — the most secure of passed notes — it also seems art history was being tagged just for fun. Harvey was both amused and confused as to why this tag hadn’t been commandeered by the art historical community for more useful discussion.

Hashtags are ways we can classify information but, when used by communities of invested participants, they are also a valuable way of coordinating learning. Take the #phdchat or #acwri academic hashtags which respectively help PhD candidates and academic writers share skills and opportunities and — sometimes quite importantly — vent their anxieties and frustrations. As Nasima Riazat (originator of #phdchat) has shown, establishing a new hashtag for an area you’re invested in can pay dividends. Piggybacking on a conference hashtag can give us the opportunity of talking directly to a captive (they’re sitting in front of their computers/smartphones in a conference auditorium) audience of experts in our field (note: as long as you don’t go overboard and stay on topic!). Even using a hashtag ironically can become a critical tool. For example creating a tag that encapsulates a question or particular critique can help an idea gain traction on Twitter and be a way of sourcing further ideas and opinions — it might not go viral but it can captivate the right audience at the right moment.

But even as recently as 2012, if you searched for the #arthistory hashtag, still you’d struggle to be heard above the bored students (and perhaps this is evidence enough that art history educators need to retool our pedagogies to better capture our students’ imaginations). It is only in the last year or so that we’ve seen a steady rise in art history bloggers and, therefore, tweeters, and the Twitter stream for #arthistory has begun to develop a line in more professionally-minded peer-to-peer sharing. It’s still slow going though. The College Art Association conference Twitter stream is far quieter than the Modern Language Association’s, for example, while tweeting is almost non-existent at the Association of Art Historian’s annual conference.

In her report on digital capacity building in the discipline of art history, Diane M. Zorich found that art historians have generally aspired to working alone and only publishing our work when perfectly complete, and then only in print. Traditionally, then, art historians are somewhat averse to openly sharing iterations of our work, let alone engaging in an open-source methodology mash-up (whatever that might constitute). On top of this, methods for effective engagement in social media are not always clear from the outside. That is, unless you start using Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, and unless you actively investigate the ways these platforms can be used, you can easily miss out not just on their value, but on how they work.

In 2013 artist Rob Myers and I developed an “#arthistory” hashtag artwork. The artwork itself comprises both the ability to render this piece of digital text in 3D form and its ownership/use by anyone. There is a dedicated website that explains the project and points to how the tags themselves can be obtained. It also features links to places where you can see the hashtag in use and join in (i.e. tagging real world items as “art history”), these include a Flickr group, a Tumblr blog and of course the #arthistory Twitter stream. The project is actually a three dimensional and/or practice-based rendering of an open access journal article I wrote called ‘Is Art History Too Bookish?’. And in this capacity, Myers’ and my physical hashtags are created as a way of pondering the physical nature of art history — the material existence of art historical text and images and how this materiality impacts the discussions we can have. So quite simply, we turned a hashtag into a very literal research object so we could look at it from all angles. And in the period since, the tag has been all over the world, exhibited in an art exhibition at a major art institution and selected as an ‘editor’s choice’ by Digital Humanities Now.

A hashtag — and our 3D hashtag in particular — is a learning tool. Myers and I wondered what a Twitter stream full of art historians would look like. We wanted to get more art historians to think seriously about using Twitter, and turning a daunting digital discussion device into a nice friendly object seemed the best way to achieve this. It is our hope that owning a tag will provide enjoyable encouragement to have a go at Twitter (or any number of social media) and not just to explore these platforms and share more about their work and techniques but perhaps even develop new collaborative projects for art historians. (As an aside, for many of the art historians who have joined in and bought a 3D tag, it was also their first purchase of anything produced by a 3D printer so already we are literally getting to grips with a new medium). This way, the #arthistory Twitter stream can become more than a repository for student angst, but a classroom in its own right, where art historians can experiment with a method of online group discussion.

In sum, Myers and I turned a digital device into a physical one to help solidify the tangible qualities of networked learning. Our 3D hashtag raises questions about how we use different communication technologies for teaching and research, and about the evolving conventions of working publicly in the network.

[Photo by @Jessifer]