Can We #Hashtag Our Way to Transformative Change?

Shonda Rhimes, who basically controls Thursday’s on ABC, gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth College this past year.  Among many of the thoughtful and encouraging words she read to the graduating class of 2014 was her comment that a hashtag is not a movement.

“And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #YesAllWomen #TakeBackTheNight #NotAllMen #BringBackOurGirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething.

Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.”

If there is anything that drives me nuts it’s slacktivism and only participating in social change issues behind the safety of a computer.  Her words were music to my frustrated ears of online activism.  Opinions are like @$$ holes, everyone has one – but not everyone will get off the computer and take more impactful action.

I didn’t realize Ms. Rhimes’ comment got so many people in a tizzy until I saw a Buzzfeed article on it – specifically on if hashtags count as activism.  Buzzfeed reached out to “a number of people who use hashtags and social media to enable social change by email and asked them all the same question: Do you think hashtags count as activism?”

As much as I love Buzzfeed, their question misses the core of Ms. Rhimes’ comments.  She said #hashtags are not a movement.  She never said they don’t count as activism.  Instead of asking this seemingly one-dimensional question of if #hashtags count as activism, I would be more interested in learning from the respondents what role they feel online organizing, social media, and #hashtags play in movements to effect transformative change and how are they actually seeing that play out in their work.

#hashtags are a component of activism.  They help bring attention to issues.  They help build a groundswell of support to push an issue, to build a movement.  They, in and of themselves, are not a movement.  A “like” or #hashtag is not a powerful move, it will not itself alone create meaningful change. People need to stop believing their “like” is making an impactful difference and organizations need to start providing the right “asks” to get people more engaged.

Social media has created a platform where individuals, elected officials, and reporters can follow issues in real time.  We have seen this unfold in Maryland within the environmental community.  The Smart on Pesticides Campaign has thoughtful metrics and a strong online presence to push their issues.  They use their metrics (which are not a simple measurement of likes) to understand what their audience cares most about.  They give them directives and ways to get involved beyond a computer.  They keep them up to date on relevant issues.  Their social media presence is incorporated into a larger strategy and has help achieve the success they have seen in the 2014 legislative session.  The Smart on Pesticides Campaign is the movement.  Their #hashtags and online content are the tools to make the effort successful.

When social media presence is not well thought out or strategic it will plateau or fizzle out.  When I think of these issues,  I think of organizations who simply measure “likes” as a sign of impact or the immediate support that floods my newsfeed in the wake of a tragedy.  #YesAllWomen created a great dialogue, but weeks after its creation where do things stand?  I had a friend who was incredibly shaken up and upset about the shooting that inspired the #YesAllWomen conversation.  She started reading and sharing articles and making comments online.  As with most, her public concern for the issue died as quickly as it had emerged.  The movement and conversation that was created was great, but there isn’t/wasn’t a next step, a directive, and end goal to push supporters to.  It has just seemed to fizzle.

Shonda Rhimes was 100% correct.  #hashtags are not a movement.  #hashtags will not achieve anything from their simple existence beyond creating an online conversation.  But if the online presence is built into a strategic campaign or effort, it could create the base of support and awareness to create the transformative change we want to see in the world.