Hashtags annoy the living hell out of me, generally speaking. I realize some people use them for organizational purposes and for grouping certain things together on various social media sites, but for some reason every time I see a hashtag I just go into rage mode. I think it’s because I perceive hashtags to be a convenient way for intellectually lazy people to express a point without having to actually think about it. Hashtags come across to me as a real-life version of newspeak, the language designed by George Orwell’s Big Brother to dumb down the populace and make them think about complex issues within the limited context of a single word or phrase. It’s a kind of speech designed to keep you from thinking too much. I’ll be really terrified if I ever see a post saying #doubleplusungood or something like that. Orwell was wrong about the government having to institute and mandate newspeak, though. We’ve instituted our own brand of mind-numbing newspeak all by ourselves.
Lets separate this out a little, though. Are all hashtags really that bad or am I just being cranky? I would say that the vast majority of hashtags really are that bad. It’s insulting to the reader’s intelligence to put an asinine hashtag like #food onto a picture of a meal you just uploaded. I see it’s food. I don’t need your assistance determining that. The hashtag adds nothing to what you are trying to convey and is therefore pointless. Even if your motives are simply to gain more followers for your shitty black & white photos of turned-over chairs on Instragram, you adding “#photography” is not going to get any more people to follow you.
When social activism went online, I initially saw it as the death-knell of civil disobedience in the West. Why would anyone want to take to the streets if there is the easier option of tweeting/posting a hashtag? I foresaw all protests moving online, and nothing getting done because no politicians or policy makers at the time took the internet very seriously. The one I had the biggest problem with was #kony2012. Most of the people who posted that hashtag normally did not spare a single thought in their lives for the country of Uganda or its citizens, let alone the continent of Africa. Most people who posted that hashtag didn’t even see the Kony 2012 documentary. People might know that the hashtag has something to do with child soldiers in Africa, and people know they’re against that. By posting a hashtag like that the person kills several birds with one stone. For one, it allows the person to appear as socially conscious to their peers without actually having to do any of the tedious reading that comes with being socially conscious. Moreover, it give the person posting the hashtag a sense of achievement for the the absolute minimum of effort. When a person posts a social activism-related hashtag, it gives them a sense of “Hey! I helped!” while they actually did nothing to help. By the way, they still haven’t caught Joseph Kony, a full two years on from the #kony2012 campaign. He was supposed to surrender in 2013, buuuut he didn’t. So yeah he’s still imprisoning children and conscripting them into his murderous army. Anyone want to start the campaign again? Nope. No one gives a shit because its not popular to give a shit anymore.
That’s all very cynical, of course. I think that #activism has developed quite significantly since then. The internet has grown in importance, even in the short time since 2014. Social media has also risen in importance in correlation with the internet. For this reason and the reasons below I am now of the opinion that sometimes social media campaigns can be very successful in effectuating actual, tangible change in policy. Social media trends now get attention on national news whenever they get big enough, and while the wisdom of that is an argument for another time it cannot be denied that media attention elevates the status of the trending hashtag. For me, the most successful hashtag so far has #bringbackourgirls, which was concerned with the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls from their school. At first I thought it was going to be another #kony2012, but then the campaign got the attention of celebrities, the news media, and eventually Michelle Obama. Her picture where she is holding up a sign with the hashtag on it went viral in and of itself and it was invaluable to the movement. It also got the attention of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, among other world leaders. Accordingly, it seems now that some social media campaigns now have the ability to make politicians pay attention. This hashtag is the most successful one most importantly because it has brought about actual change. In early May 2014 a team of law enforcement experts and hostage negotiators from the US were sent to Nigeria to assist their government in the return of the girls. That’s definitely something the movement can hang it’s hat on. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/nigeria-welcomes-us-military-assistance-to-free-kidnapped-girls/
So you see, it is foolish to dismiss #activism entirely. As if the #bringbackourgirls campaign was not evidence enough of this, you can look outside the US for even more evidence of the effectiveness of social media and hashtags in bringing about real-world change. Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, and Ukraine are just some of the countries to see civil unrest recently, and the protesters in those countries often use Twitter and its hashtags to coordinate events, marches, and demonstrations. Twitter was so effective in Egypt and Turkey that the governments of those two countries blocked Twitter entirely, leading people to spray paint the IP addresses of proxy servers on the sides of buildings. That was astounding to me and really showed the importance of social media in modern-day political activism.
Speaking of Egypt, a woman from that country named Gigi Ibrahim is the impetus behind this blog. If I had any doubts about the effectiveness of hashtags, they were tempered even further by the interview Ibrahim gave on the Daily Show on June 4. Watch it here: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/goaw64/exclusive—gigi-ibrahim-extended-interview-pt–1 This woman is a real life socialist revolutionary, a person actively fighting day-to-day for the betterment of her country and her people. If a hashtag campaign is useful for her, then who the hell am I to contradict her? (by the way, #freemahienour)
Most hashtags are still asinine and pointless, but I’ve evolved on the effectiveness of social activism hashtags. I still want people to read about the issue and not just repost something because its popular, but those same mindless people are part of the reason by hashtags can be sometimes successful. I think that coupled with real-world marches and protests, social media activism can be very effective for bringing about change in certain scenarios. Whether or not hashtags can be effective in all situations remains to be seen. Viral hashtags have a very limited lifespan and tend to be forgotten quickly when the next one comes along. If they get big enough though and stick around for long enough in people’s minds then there is a real chance that actual change will come about from it.