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The #Hashtag Revolution

Activism or Complacency?

By Bernadette N. Lim

I’ll admit it: The hashtag has become a part of my daily language. Just a few hours ago, I caught myself ending a text message with “#Summer2014”. I’ve read articles upon articles about the #YesAllWomen phenomenon that arose from the recent Isla Vista tragedy in May, and I admit to spamming my Twitter followers with #Suits while watching the show every Thursday.

Hashtags first achieved widespread attention as a means of organizing and disseminating information. Use of metadata tags such as hashtags have been around since the 1980s for the sole purpose of grouping videos, images, websites, and posts into categories. It wasn’t until 2007 that the hashtag achieved its major appearance. That summer, San Diego resident Nate Riddener appended all his posts with #SanDiegoFire to inform audiences of the wildfires that cost the San Diego County $1 billion that year. In July 2009, use of hashtags on Twitter became hyperlinked and categorized, accented by the “Trending Topics” that lists the most popular hashtags on one’s homepage.

Initially a means of spreading and categorizing information, the hashtag has since taken on a new form as a platform for social protest. Take #YesAllWomen, a hashtag that has gained the attention of nearly every media outlet through a growing collection of posts that retell stories and everyday encounters of misogyny and violence against women. Within four days of its use, #YesAllWomen was tweeted 1.2 million times, crying for a “discussion that needed to be held” regarding the susceptibility to violence and harassment that women collectively face. Yet, while the initiation of such discussion is laudable, what tangible political-social action or discussion will be held with #YesAllWomen after its trend dissipates from the eyes of public media?

Undoubtedly the current media coverage has and will continue to ignite conversation among those at the dinner table—at least for a short while. Yet, as #YesAllWomen becomes buried in news of yet another Kardashian pregnancy and another offensive comment by Bieber, how long will the important and much-needed conversations sparked by #YesAllWomen last? With daunting statistics purporting that 1 in 6 American women will be a victim of rape in her lifetime, where is the demand for reform addressing gender violence beyond a virtual screen? Will discussion and action addressing gender violence simply come and go, just like the trends that ebb and flow on Twitter’s Top Trends?

I worry that the hashtag is becoming not only the preferred form of social protest, but the only form of social activism and social justice of our generation. While generations before us demanded political and social change quite literally in the streets and at the office steps of our political leaders, what sense of urgency and action will our generation achieve? I fear that hashtag activism for social and political causes will simply be a form of lazy protest, merely demanding change virtually through words and failing to follow up with adequate and deliverable action.

Of course, hashtag activism has its merits. Hashtags have brought awareness to social and political issues that would have never been a part of everyday conversation if not for the hashtag trend itself – perhaps that in and of itself can be considered a significant political stride. #YesAllWomen enables a once taboo conversation about gender violence to be viral not only within the halls of Twitter’s trending topics but in classrooms, homes, and everyday conversations. With the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Michelle Obama’s picture quickly became the foundation of the #BringBackOurGirls viral international hashtag campaign. Sure, the United States was not able to “bring back the girls” by its own intervention, yet global scrutiny brought on by the hashtag-based campaign has hopefully pressured or will pressure the Nigerian government into action. And even beyond a personal social cause, corporations’ use of hashtags has been a publicity stunt for the better (i.e. Ben and Jerry’s #FairTrade campaign in 2011) or for the worse (i.e. the backfiring of NYPD’s #myNYPD campaign in this past April).

Whether virtually or in person, for social change or for fun, the hashtag revolution will continue on in our everyday communication, playing a large role in what is relevant and irrelevant in the minds of the general public. To what end will hashtag trends be more than words on a screen? To what extent will we be a generation of superficial “awareness” remotely stimulated by a virtual pound sign? To what end will we give meaning to our words and fight to demand and instigate meaningful action?

I guess I do admit that #firstworldproblems puts my privilege into a humorous, yet nonetheless tangible perspective. And while #BringBackOurGirls was short-lived, those few days of universal solidarity for the missing Nigerian schoolgirls was truly a sight to see. But just as these hashtags have spurred a consciousness of lives beyond my own, so do I believe that my #YesAllWomen tweet on gender violence deserves to be bolded beyond the retweets and favorites on my Twitter timeline. We can’t let the world forget about the Isla Vista tragedy, Elliot Rodgers’ hateful misogyny, or Nigeria’s recent end to its Boko Haram investigation with all 200+ schoolgirls still missing.

The #hashtag revolution can be the last step of action, or it can be the first.

I think we should make it the first.

Bernadette N. Lim ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint human evolutionary biology and women, gender and sexuality studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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