Hashtag” used to be a word used solely by computer programmers and pale men with really bad acne. The tiny club of people who knew what it meant could have fit inside one of Shaquille O’Neal’s shoes. Now, it’s a prominent member of the English lexicon, and we’ve got stupid Twitter to blame.

Not that I’m bitter.

Social media isn’t evil, in and of itself. It can be used for evil purposes, like bullying a classmate, or posting various pictures of the gross injury you sustained while pogo-sticking over a stack of empty Fruit Loops boxes. But the medium itself is a fairly neutral thing. It can even be used for positive change. Sparking democratic revolutions in Middle Eastern countries? Check. Spreading inspirational messages falsely attributed to sensuous headshots of Johnny Depp? Check. These are things with the potential to improve peoples’ lives, despite the uncomfortable fact that Johnny Depp always looks like he’s five minutes away from directing a porno. I think it’s his hats. They’re porn hats.

But these instances are more common to traditional social media platforms like Facebook, which allow users to post comments, engage in discussions and share links to videos of ferrets who headbang to Slayer tunes.

Twitter’s a different animal. It’s the ugly stepchild of social media. In case you’ve spent the past few years hunting wild game with a tribe of pygmies, Twitter is a website that allows its users to post short messages ”“ called, obnoxiously, “tweets” ”“ that are limited to 140 characters in length. This is just long enough to share something banal and trivial, like “I enjoy ham,” and just short enough to discourage fully formed thoughts, like “I enjoy ham because it reminds me of Sunday dinners with my Uncle Horatio, and here’s four paragraphs about the mole on his neck.”

And that’s basically it. If Twitter had any less substance, it wouldn’t exist. It’s not completely devoid of usefulness; fine publications like the Journal Tribune can use it to post public notices. (Go team!) This scant functionality, though, is hardly enough to explain why it’s become such a ubiquitous obsession. It’s everywhere. The lingo it’s spawned is even creeping into the common vernacular, with news anchors and late-night TV hosts forced to conceal their disgust whenever they mention a “tweet” or a “hashtag” ”“ the latter sounding like some kind of shady, arcane drug paraphernalia.

A hashtag, in Twitter terms (twerms?), is a word or phrase with a number sign affixed to the front of it, like #stateoftheunion, or #paulyshoresucks. Tacked on to the end of an annoyingly brief Twitter message, it groups a particular posting with other posts that have the same hashtag; this serves the dual purpose of facilitating searchability while giving a harsh noogie to a rapidly eroding English language. It depresses me that I know this. That a non-user like myself can define a hashtag in detail speaks to how thoroughly it’s permeated the social landscape. It spreads faster than STDs on “The Bachelor.” And in five minutes, there’ll be a Twitter post about how gross that analogy was.

Astoundingly, there are distinguished people of letters who have taken to the form. Among the more notable is British comedian and Mr. Potato Head look-alike Stephen Fry. While he isn’t super well-known in the States ”“ due in part to the fact that he’s never egged a Beverly Hills mansion from the back seat of the Kardashian limo ”“ he’s a big deal across the pond, rounding out a career as a writer and director with an education in English literature from Cambridge. Dude’s got about four million Twitter followers, despite routinely avoiding phrases like “tiger blood” and “edible underwear.” On the Canadian radio show “Q with Jian Ghomeshi,” Fry explained that he’s drawn to the site’s format because it forces a writer to be creative, to pare away extraneous language and deliver a message succinctly. I don’t share his passion for brevity ”“ obviously ”“ but I see his point.

The sentiment is nice in theory. In practice, the most active and followed users tend to be celebrities ”“ and not to generalize, but when you combine a dumb medium with a mostly dumb user base, the results are, well, dumb. Here’s a sampling of messages posted by various celebrities:

From Sherri Shepherd: “OMG just woke up and my rear is plugged ”“ tried everything ”“ yawning ”¦ pinching my nose, closing mouth and pushing out breath ”¦ won’t unstop”

From Paris Hilton: “No, no, I didn’t go to England; I went to London.”

From Miley Cyrus: “Good morning everyone. Life is good, I am laying in bed with my mommy right now scratching her bug bites.”

From Lil’ Kim: “I’m driving right now”

People actually spend time reading this stuff. What’s worse, people spend time writing it. Fry may be correct in that it forces a writer ”“ at least some writers ”“ to be creatively brief, but the flip side is that it also lets people off the hook. It actively encourages half-formed thoughts and ill-advised brain droppings. The resulting drek is forced down our throats during news broadcasts, with anchors now reading tweets from viewers reacting to the big stories of the day. As if our understanding of world events will be deepened by the musings of Satanic  _Kitty69, and his highly trenchant observation that “oBaMa shuld rspect the constitushun!!!11”

But what am I doing? Here I am using all these words when I should be excoriating Twitter in 140 characters or less. So here it is, my 137-character warning to this evil scourge:

“If I catch you around these parts again, I’ll wrestle you into a headlock and squeeze until your face is red as a basket of strawberries.”

Hmm. Maybe Fry was right. That was actually kinda fun.

— Jeff Lagasse is a staff writer and columnist for the Journal Tribune who may, in fact, be slightly bitter. He can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 319 or [email protected]