#culture

This story was originally published in The Willamette Collegian of Willamette University on February 3, 2015. It was written by Jessica Meza-Torres, Edna Htet, and Malorie Hill.

The Internet and human interaction are not mutually exclusive. Though a number of sentimental hipsters will still look back with teary eyes at a time when we all “still participated in actual conversation,” the Internet has actually elevated our access to discourse, making distance between individuals almost completely arbitrary.

Consider the hashtag. That wondrous little symbol that for decades was but a useless pound sign on the corner of our phones––and has recently turned into a worldwide phenomenon vital to Internet culture.

You likely see your friends casually using hashtags to add that finishing touch to their selfie captions on Instagram or Twitter: #Cute, #SelfieSunday and, who could forget, #Swag. But as we interact more with hashtags, that little pound sign has evolved into a political engine.

The sweet thing about hashtags is that––after creating one on social media––it automatically becomes a link through which all other uses of that hashtag are conveniently amalgamated. This virtual collection consequently becomes an organized space of information and more focused conversation. Topics range from Taco Bell’s newest burrito to commentary on Kim Kardashian’s most recent selfie. However, there has been an emergence of hashtags specifically created in response to social issues. Their popularity proves that the hashtag allows for the voices of marginalized identities to come together and be heard.

An early example of the hashtag as a vehicle for organization that comes to mind involved comedian Stephen Colbert and writer and activist Suey Park. After Colbert tweeted a racially-charged, allegedly satirical comment aimed at the Asian community, Park responded by initiating the “Cancel Colbert” and “Not Your Asian Sidekick” Twitter campaigns. Though Park later commented that she did not actually want the show to end, she did expect an apology. Author and activist Michelle Malkin later added, “I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness,'” ending her tweet with Park’s “Cancel Colbert” tag.

The feud led to a greater conversation about hashtag activism, in which many praised Park and her peers for making use of such a casual tool to start a social movement. Critics, on the other hand, were quick to call her work “slacktivism,” a term coined by radio host and political commentator Dan Carlin. The term refers to an easy, “lazy” form of activism, in which participants may retweet, reblog or repost content about social issues, and then completely disengage, considering their work complete.

It is important to note that the very use of the word “slacker” by critics of hashtag activism produces a stigma for those who do not fit traditional definitions of an able body. The work of Park and other activists brings attention to the possibility that hashtags allow: For the first time, a larger variety of voices, bodies and opinions have space to be heard in a public sphere. Simultaneously, these varying identities use the space to find each other.

What lies at the core of social movements is engagement and cooperation, regardless of the medium through which they are achieved. The standards by which we measure “effective” or “productive” activism, then, need to be reexamined.

 

“I don’t really use hashtags, but I find them funny and I think that’s how they’re supposed to be used. I understand people using hashtags to try to spread their ‘message’ or to get something trending, but I personally do not think that is the best way to spread a message or use hashtags.” -Conner Olson, sophomore, undeclared

“I think hashtags are hilarious, but I feel like they should stay on the Internet. They can make conversations more interesting and funny, but they definitely shouldn’t be used in any serious or academic writing.” -Juliette Hallberg, sophomore, computer science

“I don’t really use them in social media. I think people use them to be funny, but sometimes they are just annoying and they’re trying to get likes. That’s weird. I just think they pop up too often in real life.” -Maile Symonds, sophomore, politics

“Is there #anything #irritating about this #sentence? I unfollow people who use hashtags. I hate reading a tweet with multiple hashtags in it, as though someone is talking to you with food in their mouth. Let’s keep the web a hashtag-free place.” -Mitchell Heidenreich, sophomore, rhetoric and media studies

Most popular hashtags of 2014 / 2015

1. #WorldCup

The 2014 World Cup has been labelled the most talked about social media event ever, with numbers as high as 9.9 million mentions on the final game day. Single players also received outrageous amounts of Twitter mention, with Argentina’s Lionel Messi topping the charts at approximately 363,000 mentions and Brazil’s Neymar coming in a close second, with 316,000 mentions.

2. #WeCantBreathe

This hashtag is a variant of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” Garner was an African-American man who was fatally strangled by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17, 2014 for allegedly selling “loosies”––or single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps. The hashtag ignited broader conversations about police brutality and the constant threat faced by black Americans. According to Google Trends, the hashtag was tweeted more than 1.3 million times in the month of December 2014 alone.

3. #BlackLivesMatter

Originally created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, this hashtag emerged as a response to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the failure to indict his murderer, George Zimmerman. The hashtag reemerged after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked protests nationwide, but since then the trending topic has been cleared from multiple social media histories, including Tumblr.

4. #IceBucketChallenge

This hashtag went viral in July 2014. Its purpose was to promote awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, and to encourage donations for research. This hashtag gained a lot of momentum because it was usually accompanied by a video of celebrities dumping buckets of ice on themselves and then nominating others to do the same. The success of the campaign can be evinced by the 2.4 million tagged videos circulating on Facebook.

5. #BringBackOurGirls

After the abduction of 276 Nigerian girls from a boarding school in the northeastern town of Chibok last April, this global Twitter campaign gained a lot of media attention due to high-profile support from First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Though the hashtag helped collect almost 300,000 signatures on online petitions, the campaign has faced criticism for abandoning the cause. Approximately 230 girls are still missing while the online support and media attention has died out.

6. #WhyIStayed

After the Ray Rice scandal last September, Beverly Gooden famously tweeted, “I stayed because my pastor told me God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too.” Gooden created the hashtag to confront the stigma women face when they stay in abusive relationships. The hashtag went viral, as women shared their lived experiences, simultaneously debunking the myths associated with domestic abuse and sexual and gender-based violence.

7. #UmbrellaRevolution

A series of student-led demonstrations unfolded in Hong Kong last October, advocating for democratic reform under Communist rule. Though these demonstrations were peaceful, authorities resorted to the use of tear gas in hopes of pacifying protesters. The “umbrella” aspect of the hashtag originates from the protesters’ use of umbrellas in attempt to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the gas. The hashtag facilitated global support, with solidarity messages stretching from Berlin to San Francisco.

8. #YesAllWomen

After the infamous Isla Vista killings in May, #YesAllWomen emerged as a response to #NotAllMen, in which men attempted to distance themselves from misogyny and violence against women. The social media campaign brought women’s experiences with sexism together, simultaneously holding men accountable for their participation in rape culture. Within 12 days, the hashtag reached 1.2 million tweets.

9. #TanSuit (#YesWeTan)

Last August, Twitter was buzzing about President Barack Obama’s outfit choice during a press conference on foreign policy, resulting in the trending topic #TanSuit. Just last month, however, the White House retaliated, posting a picture on its Instagram account depicting yet another tan suit, with the cheeky caption “The President’s suiting up for the big speech. #YesWeTan.” Twitter user Dave Earley famously satirically stated, “When I saw that #YesWeTan was trending, I assumed at first it was referring to Boehner. #OrangeNotTan.”

10. #AlexFromTarget

One Sunday afternoon in Frisco, Texas, a Twitter user that goes by Rims was shopping at Target when she noticed a particularly handsome cashier. She took a photo without him noticing and captioned it “YOOOOOOOOOO.” The tweet went viral, and soon everyone was tweeting about their favorite employees with their own personalized hashtags. The original tweet reached approximately 1,110 retweets and 1,900 likes.

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