Responsible Hashtivism

To say that I love Twitter would be an understatement. In less than a decade something I initially thought was pointless has become an integral part of my life, without changing much of its core functionality. And, with regard to content, Twitter is still pointless. It’s the Seinfeld of social media – the app about nothing. But, therein lies its genius: Twitter is about whatever users (known as tweeters) decide it’s about at any given moment. This allows Twitter to be the most diverse and versatile social network, but anyone who has engaged on Twitter long enough is aware that Twitter’s very nature is a blessing and a curse. Tweeters determine the raison d’être, and then they are responsible for it. Unfortunately, even those who choose to apply Twitter to more admirable causes are not always good stewards. The titular example of this is hashtag activism (which, because I love a good portmanteau, I refer to as hashtivism).

Credit for coining the term “hashtivism” certainly does not belong to me, but because I have not come across a clear definition, I will take this opportunity to define it as follows:

hash-tiv-ism [ hæʃtɪ, vɪzəm ]

– n
the use of hashtags on social media (mainly, but not solely, on Twitter) to express and promote a political or social position

The most recent (and, arguably, the most widely recognized) example of hashtivism is #CancelColbert, which was a response to a segment on The Colbert Report that used racial slurs against Asians. You can read all about it here. Hashtivism isn’t the only way to use Twitter to organize for a specific cause, it is simply the squeakiest wheel at the present time.

When Occupy Wall Street garnered national attention one of the most common criticisms of the movement was that it was unorganized. Ironically, I have witnessed some of the very people who put forth that criticism engage in hashtivism on a weekly – if not daily – basis. Perhaps hashtivism benefits from short attention spans in a way that Occupy Wall Street was unable to, given the constant media coverage of nationwide “Occupy” rallies. But, as it is currently being used, hashtivism is less organized than Occupy Wall Street (which says a lot considering, in most cases of hashtivism, we can identify a leader because they insist on being identified as the creator of the hashtag). Occupy rallies were successful in motivating people to make sacrifices and risk being arrested for their cause. Hashtivism calls for no such sacrifice or accountability, and hardly comes close to Occupy’s stamina. It does not follow that hashtivism is worthless, per se. As with anything, its long-term effects will remain to be seen. What I have yet to see hashtivists address is: What is the means? What is the end? And, does the former justify the latter? While getting a hashtag to the top of the Twitter’s Trending Topics list is no small feat, it is also something that happens quite often. What about the people who are used to get it there?

As it is currently being used hashtivism does very little to build communities or coalitions. Neither are required. All that is necessary is the perpetuation of the hashtag by enough tweeters to get Twitter’s attention. If hashtivism is effective at anything, this is it. Usually, these hashtags are targeting people (individuals and/or groups) who are in a position of power and do not normally find themselves face to face with the grievances of the people they oppress. The expectation (or, maybe the assumption . . . or, maybe just the hope) is that the hashtag will cause those in power to stop, reflect, and make any appropriate changes. This is definitely a valiant mission. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence of this atonement actually taking place. There may very well be people in the targeted group who see the error of their ways, but they are not in the majority (and, hashtags’ arms are too short to box with the institutionalized gods known as racism, sexism, and capitalism). One reason for this is simply because, while they are the intended target, those in power do not wind up being the recipients of the majority of the tweets.

Due to Twitter’s functionality, the majority of the people who are reading the onslaught of hashtivists’ tweets are the people who follow them on Twitter. The probability of these people having similar perspectives is high, while the probability that they will be a member of the group being targeted by a specific hashtag is low. Offline, this phenomenon is known as preaching to the choir. This is also one of the reasons why hashtivists are successful at getting their hashtags on top of Twitter’s list of Trending Topics – when you have a large group of people who are of one accord, the opportunity to get them to act in harmony presents itself quite often. Preaching to the choir is anyone’s prerogative, but it is also counterproductive to hashtivists’ goals (at least, what they present their goals to be), and it comes with a price.

As I mentioned before, hashtivism offers very little in the way of community and coalition building. There are no sustained campaigns, nor ways to track progress. Those who follow hashtivists and participate in getting their hashtags to trend do not get very much in return, besides the knowledge that they participated in something that all of Twitter (and, possibly, the whole world) will see. The oppressive systems that they want to abolish still exist, without a dent or a scratch in their armor. The bigots who they are trying to be rid of have gone nowhere (except, maybe, showing up in their mentions). Mission: not accomplished. Yet, a brand new hashtag is already being propagated. Here today, gone today. And, while many hashtivists are successful in getting their own work published in online magazines and being invited as guests on television shows, there is very little converting, nurturing, or debating of ideas. Meanwhile in Twitterville, ‘outrage fatigue’ sets in for the very people the hashtags were supposed to be giving a voice to. And, those who are in the targeted group completely tune out, if they were tuned in to begin with. If hashtivists know or care, they have yet to adjust their tactics. Instead they soldier on, essentially, asking people to shout at the wind.

“What’s my motivation?” – Scarlett Johansson

Why should anyone – specifically those in positions of power – listen? Hashtivists have been known to say, “I’m not here to teach”. If the point of hashtivism is not to raise awareness and enlighten those in power about the ways they are harming everyone else, what exactly is the point of the hashtag? To preach to the choir? To shout at the wind? Catharsis? To get the creator of the hashtag a byline and an opportunity to be a talking head? There are, potentially, as many motivations as there are tweeters on Twitter, and they are all valid, but only if they are also transparent. Currently, there is a discrepancy between what hashtivists claim their goals are, and what they are actually doing.

In addition to contributing to outrage fatigue – which is something that may occur whether the outrage is warranted or not, or even qualifies as outrage – hashtivists inadvertently trivialize serious issues with their choice of hashtag. The wash-and-reuse feel of popular hashtag starter kits #NotYour[insert noun here] and #StandWith[insert name here] undermine the severity of the very issues they are supposed to be raising awareness about. Why should anyone care to read the tweets attached to a hashtag if those responsible for starting the hashtag could not even be bothered to create one that aptly expresses their plight? Let alone the regrettable fact that tweeters who have disabilities have consistently pointed out the ways in which hashtags beginning with “#StandWith” are problematic, only to be completely ignored over and over again. Oh, irony.

“Help me help you!” – Jerry Maguire

Hashtags are one of the best things about Twitter. I am fortunate to be, “I remember when Twitter formally adopted hashtags”, old in Twitter years. When hashtags’ powers combine with activism, it can truly be something to behold. Being an insomniac in 2009 gave me a front row seat to #IranElection. And, being someone who appreciates a good roasting, I adored #PaulasBestDishes. Witnessing and participating in these hashtag events are privileges that I will always hold dear, and why I will always defend Twitter as a platform that can be used to affect change. They are also why I will critique those who squander and abuse Twitter and tweeters.

Hashtivism can do more, but only if the people who use it actually do more than create disposable hashtags from recycled starter kits. Marginalized people do need to be heard, and our grievances (large and small) should be aired along with everyone else’s. Then what? Expecting oppressors to read a hashtag and be changed for the better reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the way humans work. My name is not Sway, and I do not have all of the answers, but I know that if hashtivists continue down the path they are on, hashtivism is in jeopardy of being worn out. It is not solely theirs to abuse in such a fashion. It is time for more responsible hashtivism, if for nothing else, so that when a crisis occurs, those of us who people look to as organizers will be able to have it in our arsenal and not look like the boy who cried wolf.