some of us are brave
Social media can be a wasteland. It can also be a wonderland. I have met many brilliant people online, particularly Twitter, who have become colleagues and collaborators. That is how I met Robert Reece. He is a sociologist, PhD student at Duke University, and writer in his own right.
I could not figure out how to have a fruitful conversation about the hashtag hubbub so I mostly stayed silent. Robert and I both watched the debate about hashtags, social movements and media that recently hit the big time on The Colbert Report and dozens of publications. We had questions and thoughts. We hashed (apologies) a few of them out and what follows is some of what emerged from our conversation. This is the first time I have ever shared a collaborative piece on my blog. That should speak to the scope of the project (of which this is a small piece) and what I learned from our conversations. Not that you needed any more ink spilled on hashtags but here’s our two cents.
Almost fifteen years into the 21st century and crisis has become the new normal. Beginning with September 11th, the train of hits to security and collective psyche just kept coming. From terrorism to dying bees, it is difficult to know which battle to fight. It should be an auspicious time for social movements and activism. Surely, the Dreamers reminded us of civil rights movements but Occupy and Anonymous came closest to being activist epochs. Occupy added a millennial edge to the 1970s peaceniks and Anonymous cast a shadow of anarchy just beyond the nation’s front door. But, in many ways these movements didn’t feel populist. Occupy had an air of middle class whiteness that did not resonate with an American culture that is as brown as it has ever been. And becoming Anonymous takes digital acumen and deep relational ties that few have the time or know-how to cultivate. These were professional movements. They required capital — social and economic — that narrowed their resonance among the growing, discontented middle.
And there is discontent. Young adults feel burned by the promise of mobility that was largely a 1960s anomaly and a 2000s fiction. Older workers are feeling squeezed between parents and children who need ever greater shares of their dwindling incomes and net worth. African Americans watched as progressives and conservatives dismantled the critical achievements from the Civil Rights Movement, reducing them to “diversity” talking points. Ethnic minorities felt the pinch of marginal whiteness as status and power closed ranks when the economy almost imploded. The “one percent” narrative emerged, giving language to the general malaise felt by many if for different, often opposing reasons: there’s a war, someone is losing and we are someone. The people needed an amateur movement in an era of professional movement makers. The hashtag was well-suited for such a moment.
What started as a twitter functionality to aggregate patterns of data is now talked about in the same breath as socialism, feminism, Marxism, and the Civil Rights Movement. One popular hashtag creator insisted that hashtag activism would settle for nothing less than dismantling the State. People have scoffed at the social media iteration of “slacktavism”, i.e. activism with psychic rewards and social cred that don’t require one to actually do anything. It is not lost on many activists — especially young and minority activists — that this criticism is mostly lobbed by activist, media and political elites. The polemics of who is having the debate about hashtag activism has been conflated with the actual debate about activism in the age of precarity and cheap digital tools. Do we have to take all hashtags and hashtag activists seriously to take seriously the idea that something is brewing among people and it just happens to percolate on Twitter where the world can see it and pass judgement?
At the end of a year of the hashtags that would change the world, what is twitter activism? A river of ink has been spilled on the actors but what about do we know about the action? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the current and future state of affairs for hashtags, online activism, and movement-making on social media? A year ago, Robert wrote a piece discussing the need for social movements to constantly reassess the value of their tactics. He argued that,“in the short history of social media, twitter in this case, [social media] has proven itself to be a powerful tool.” Powerful is an interesting way to describe a corporate product designed to feel like the public square. But, whose power is at play and what happens when capitalism and populism collide in a medium with an infinite amount of space to fill?
Things change quickly in the digital age. And, over the last year, as hashtag activism became increasingly entrenched as a social movement tactic, the populism was rapidly stripped away leading to widespread claims of hashtag “ownership”. We want to be very clear here about the brief socio-political history of hashtag ownership. As have many black political traditions, exerting ownership claims of hashtags began as a resistance to the co-option and exploitation of black labor. Specifically, new and old media outlets had made a routine practice of mining the ideas, tweets, and language of black women on twitter and republishing them without mentioning from whence they came. (Tressie here: I would know. Trust me.)
As is often the case, the inequalities in the material world spilled over into the digital realm. Claiming a hashtag, owning it, was a way to pushback against a streamlined process of exploitation and commodification. But, that is not exactly where we are now. Populist hashtag ownership has been seized by capitalist interests. Because capitalism is based on centralized ownership and perceived scarcity, communal ideas about hashtags “belonging” to everyone are ignored in favor of placing a face on the movement. Faces sell papers. Faces attract clicks on links. A single face gives new media journalists someone to center, someone to interview, someone to criticize, someone to support, someone to hire, all in the interest of generating traffic and increasing revenue.
But in centering discussions on the individual hashtag owners, either as supporters or detractors, we miss a large part of the conversation. We lose sight of where this all began: the actual people. The majority of us aren’t hashtag owners. Most of us will never be since hashtag ownership requires the ability to leverage a level of social media capital (in the form of Twitter followers or offline celebrity) that is difficult to come by. Most of us are just tweeters, who, in this new world, become cogs in the hashtag production machine. Some [certain types of] hashtag owners may find themselves elevated to micro-celebrity status as their hashtag lives on in infamy. But other participants, the people, those who were mobilized to do the actual work of tweeting and RTing enough to make a hashtag “trend,” get lost in the shuffle. They’re misplaced somewhere between the leader and the structure in a medium that loves a leader but exists only because of the people they eclipse.
Social movement historians have taken great pains to decenter the leaders of social movements, those who receive a disproportionate amount of credit for a marginal amount of actual work. The real heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were the people choosing to walk or carpool to work, not Martin Luther King. Elaine Brown may have led the Black Panther party to prominence but the women working in the community breakfast programs were the organization’s lifeforce.
So here’s a promise. This is an essay about hashtags that isn’t about Suey Park. It also isn’t about any of the other hashtag leaders, owners or proselytizers. Instead, we attempt to locate where most Twitter users — people — fit in this hashtag organizational structure.
Other writers have pointed out that Twitter is a corporate platform, situated in a system of capitalism. But we’re not sure that we have fully examined how that shapes the way people interact with each other, with the medium, and the way that the medium interacts with its users.
When they are used for activism and situated as they are on a corporate platform, hashtags are a form of what we call “rationalized resistance”. We mean rationalized in the academic, organizational sense of the word. It means that a process has become routine and absorbed into routine practices. The widespread use of hashtag activism allows twitter to not only build outside resistance into its standard operating procedure but to make it a part of the company business plan as a profit generating mechanism. Every piece of hashtag activism feeds twitter’s corporate machine using the very labor we’re using to combat the corporate structure. Our resistance is corporate labor. Take the very structure of hashtags. If capitalism works on the principle of false scarcity, achieving trending status makes hashtags “scarce.” That has been missed in the conversation about corporate ownership and hashtags. Any twitter account can add a pound sign. It is a trending hashtag that sparks competition for ownership relative to the perceived value of achieving a scare commodity.
Trending places the “news” right on the plate of new media giants. It’s an irresistibly simple formula: choose a trending topic, rip a few tweets, try to interview an owner, if the owner is the owner of multiple hashtags, even better. Rinse and repeat. The trending hashtag fuels the structure we’re resisting. So while the masses are reduced to a glorified Twitter assembly line who rally at the beck and call of leaders, the leaders are funneled through the new media obstacle course to fill their click quotas in a seemingly implicit agreement among media owners, large and “small.” This is what happens when the target of resistance is the medium of resistance: we fail to own our own movement. And, when we step too far outside of the framework of resistance set out for us, we are subject to the discipline of the corporation that does.
Recently, Twitter seemed to want to remind us who really owns hashtags. Spoiler: it ain’t us. A strategically issued rumor suggested that the Twitter was considering phasing out hashtags and the “@” symbol. Regardless of whether the organization actually decides to eliminate two of its more popular elements (which seems unlikely), the rumor serves as a reminder to hashtag activists that they don’t own the platform, that their–our– resistance only exists because a corporation permits it. Dismantling the State? In a battle of intellectual ownership of ideas produced according to the terms and conditions of a billion dollar organization, the State is unlikely to side with the first person to put “freedom” behind a hashtag. So the question is, how radical can your resistance be when it both funds a corporation and is subject to the decisions of that same corporation.
A year ago we said that social movements must perpetually reevaluate the effectiveness of their movement tactics as social situations change. It is a position grounded in history of media, technological change and social movements. This medium is new but the tensions are not. What feels new is the speed of change and required adaptation. But we cannot sacrifice interrogation to speed. In fact, because this all moves so fast we must be more steadfast in our interrogation. Is the value of this type of resistance — of any type of resistance — higher than the price of its exploitation?