Is Hashtag Activism Just A Lazy Substitute For The Real Thing?

Those of us safely tweeting from our comfy office chairs will never venture into those dark and dangerous places to physically ‘bring back our girls.’ But sometimes, the end we’re working toward is as simple as a conversation.

When Twitter first spread its little blue e-wings in 2006, I’ll admit that I was far from impressed. Designed to deliver, in Jack Dorsey’s words, “short bursts of inconsequential information” in real time, it was an English major’s greatest nightmare realized. Express a complete and cohesive thought in less than 140 characters? What is this going to do to the English language? And what the hell are these hashtags for?

After creating two or three accounts with Twitter over the years and deleting each of them in a fit of frustration, I finally found a use for the site when I started writing online. Not only could I share my published work and attract followers, I could promote other voices worth listening to and quickly access resources to read and reference in my own work. I decided that hashtags, like most elements of social media, could be used for good or evil. Evil, of course, would be slapping your 150th cubicle selfie this week with asinine labels like “#workflow” and “#picforpic” to attract spam for the sake of spam. Good would be crafting a catchy new slogan to rebrand your business (Sheetz’ #EatingIsBelieving is a recent favorite of mine) or a memorable phrase to support a cause.

Or maybe there’s no “good” kind of Twitter branding, and it’s all part of the same inconsequential cloud of noise. That was clearly the sentiment of Ann Coulter when, a few weeks ago, she mocked the trending #BringBackOurGirls with a picture of herself holding a sign that read #BringBackOurCountry.

Despite the underhanded implications of that message (bring back our country from whom? liberals? a black president?), Coulter and her Fox News colleagues insisted that it was a only a dig at “hashtag activism,” a lazy substitute for the real thing. Referencing the First Lady’s participation in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, George Will wondered “if the terrorists [will] see her photo [and] respond: ‘Uh-oh, Michelle Obama is very cross with us, we better change our behavior.’”

By its nature, social media is narcissistic. It has been utilized by a generation that not only assigns value to every publicly archived moment of every day, but strategically crafts its own (arguably inauthentic) virtual persona. And so even though Ann Coulter and the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s puppets aggravate me on a regular basis, I understand where they’re coming from. Hashtags often give the illusion of action in place of the action itself. There’s also the issue of compliant herd mentality: We chime in with our support because it would be rude not to. But I would like to point out that if lazy activism or “slactivism” is a trend, it is not an exclusively liberal one, nor did it begin with Twitter. Remember driving around with one of those magnetic yellow “Support Your Troops” ribbons on your car?

The fact is that as long as there have been national and global tragedies, social issues that we feel passionate about, and diseases or disorders that affect our loved ones, there have been shades of activism. Sometimes, our activism is purely inspirational: motivating those around us to feel capable and good. Other times, we convince others to adopt specific beliefs. And further yet, our activism may encourage our audience to overtly do—sign the petition, start the club, join the march. Those shades, like colors on a paint strip, vary in intensity. But they are all means to an end.

In response to the Obama-Coulter hashtag war, an army ranger named Jack posted this photo of himself, declaring “You are not making a difference; warriors are.” And in one way, he’s right: Those of us safely tweeting from our comfy office chairs will never venture into those dark and dangerous places to physically “bring back our girls.” But sometimes, the end we’re working toward is as simple as a conversation.

This week, Twitter and Facebook exploded with the trending hashtag “#YesAllWomen” after Elliot Rodger, angry at the women who had sexually rejected him, killed six people in a Santa Barbara community. I was on vacation when the shooting occurred, and didn’t have easy access to television or radio news. My smartphone, though, was resting close by.

When I opened my Facebook and Twitter applications, I was bombarded with #YesAllWomen. I not only traced the hashtag to its source and learned of the shooting, I read the stories of women who were encouraged to finally break their silence. Women who came out as survivors of sexual assault and rape, sharing their personal stories for the first time. Women who saw the impossible prude/slut dichotomy made real in murder. Women who bravely acknowledged the “men’s rights” community as not just bigotry or idiocy, but as a viable threat to our safety.

I read and contributed to a shift in the way we talk about mass shootings in this country as more than an issue of gun control laws and mental illness, but as an issue of how we raise our boys to be men. I came face to face with the sexual assaults of friends, relatives, and acquaintances. And in conjunction with Maya Angelou’s passing, I reflected on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in a more meaningful, deeply personal way.

All because of a hashtag.

Yesterday, I added to the #YesAllWomen trend after being subjected to street harassment multiple times on a brief walk to buy milk and bread. It took me all of five seconds to share my experience, which was retweeted a handful of times, and I went on with my day. When we share a tweet, write a story, or publish a piece, many of the resulting cultural shifts that occur, however large or small, remain unknown to us unless we receive direct feedback. An acquaintance on Facebook, though she received a “like” and a comment with my support, will probably never know the extent that her #YesAllWomen story got me thinking, possibly about writing a piece in the future which, with any luck, may help someone else.

So no, turning your profile picture purple for a day won’t directly put money in the pockets of cancer researchers. But a little information never hurt anyone.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the mediaFind her on Twitter. 

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