It’s hip at the moment to complain about hashtags.
Yep, for every status on my Facebook news feed lending support to the #YesAllWomen movement, someone else posts an article complaining that hashtags don’t actually DO anything.
That they’re no more than feelgood “slacktivism”. That, as the Huffington Post has written, “(i)nstead of retweeting meaningless posts, people should strive to actively make a difference in the lives of others.”
Many of my humanitarian-minded friends are similarly critical. After Mamamia’s series on the #BringBackOurGirls story, for example, one mate texted to say the campaign was futile, arguing: “Men with guns took the girls, and men with guns are needed to get them back.”
But here’s where he’s wrong.
Hashtags aren’t supposed to replace “men with guns”.
They aren’t supposed to supplant the United Nations.
When I post a photo of myself with a #BringBackOurGirls sign or contribute to the #YesAllWomen twitter conversation, I’m not belittling the role of major world leaders, aid workers, activists, community organisers and humanitarian lawyers, and I’m not suggesting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately give up his post and restrict his job description to the occasional tweet via his smartphone.
What I am doing is raising just a smidgen of awareness, which is one first step towards change.
I’m making a tiny demand that my friends and social media contacts register, even for a moment, that an issue they might have otherwise ignored is worthy of their attention.
I’m hoping that a portion of them read up on the issue and talk to their kids about why all human beings have rights regardless of their race or gender.
I’m hoping that a range of them will write letters to relevant politicians and donate money to the relevant causes.
And — although I know that only one or two of my friends might take up the charge– I’m hoping that some of them will pursue the issue further: by volunteering, by choosing a career that directly affects change, or by actively raising funds.
Because this is what social media activism does: it has the unique ability to organises thousands or millions of people across the world, to whom activism might not have been previously accessible, to work together for good.
And while the vast majority of those people might only be casually engaging with the cause — they may be too busy raising kids, paying bills and caring for sick parents to suddenly jump on a plane to Nigeria and work alongside grassroots women’s movement at the coalface (a response which, for a range of reasons, may be inappropriate anyway)– at least some of those newcomers will seize the opportunity to engage past that initial step.
And no, my (rather shouty) defence of hashtag activism doesn’t end there.
Because there’s another reason to tweet your desire to #BringBackOurGirls or #SaveMeriam: When masses add their voice to a hashtag conversation on social media, the mainstream media sit up and pay attention.
(Online news sites religiously refer to these trends, and have you noticed how even ABC TV news includes a social media round-up now?).