What about hashtags? #origins #activism

#MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. #Kony2012. #BringBackOurGirls. #ArabSpring. #Icebucketchallenge. #TakeaKnee. #Climatestrike. #JeSuisCharlie. #UmbrellaRevolution. #HeForShe.

Can you name all the protests related to these #s? You’re not the only one. Nowadays it seems that every protest has its own hashtag. Just like the protests I described in my previous two posts, #VelvetRevolution and #ябандерівець. But where did these #s come from? And have they changed how we protest? #letsdiscover


We have to travel a long way back to discover the origins of the hashtag. And even then it is not clear where the four striped # comes from. It was not even named a hashtag for a long time as Americans and Canadians called it a “pound”, whereas Brits and Irish people referred to it as a “hash”. 


It is known though that Bell Laboratories, inventors of the TouchTone phone, carried out a market research in the mid-1960s to discover which symbols the public preferred to use. As a result the * and # were added to our phone menus and gained familiarity. Fun fact 1, Bell Laboratories named the # “octothorpe”.

It took until 1988, more or less 20 years later, before the # got its function of categorising information. At the platform “Internet Relay Chat” (IRC), participants used the # to label their groups and topics. This made it easier to find information. Nobody outside of the platform, however, copied it. Even Twitter did not have a hashtag feature in the beginning.


In August 2007, Chris Messina, an open web advocate who previously worked for Google, got inspired by the IRC and suggested in a tweet to use #s. (Fun fact 2, he is now also known as the inventor of the hashtag). And so a few months later, October 2007, the use of hashtags took off during the 2007 California wildfires (#sandiegofire). Twitter acknowledge the use of #s formally in 2009. Everything preceded with a # became hyper-linked. In 2010, they even added the tool of trending topics, displaying the most popular hashtags. Other media soon followed: Instagram (2010), Facebook (2013), Google+, Tumblr and Pinterest.

From a rather obscure symbol, the # has become the main way to categorise information online. Because who doesn’t put in some #s when tweeting or posting on Instagram?   


Around 2008/2009 the use of #s gained popularity. One can e.g. notice that Obama used #askobama in his 2008 presidential campaign, or the use of #s during the 2009 Iranian protests and 2010 Arab Spring. The term “Hashtag Activism” was first used by The Guardian in September 2011. They posted an article to discuss the role of social media in the Occupy Wall Street protests. The term refers to using Twitter/hashtags for online activism or to the act of expressing support for a cause through liking and sharing. Professor Caroline Dadas describes it as “the attempt to use Twitter’s hashtags to incite social change”. It is a way to redirect and readjust media coverage of events. By doing so, #activism has brought attention to class, race, gender injustices which are often ignored by the mainstream media outlets.


Hashtag activism has several strengths. It allows marginalised people to speak out and join the conversation. This was e.g. perfectly demonstrated by #metoo that gave space to women to express their experiences of sexual misconduct and to find that they are not alone. It further turns consumers into creators, and gathers people outside of our own social circles. It strongest element is that it can break media silences by turning a topic into a trending topic. 


That said, some dangers need to be noted. A hashtag can be misused by others. Not to mention the many companies that use the #s of protests or trending topics to gain popularity aka to get a “ride along”. One can also wonder about the sustainability of #s. Can they extend beyond the short duration of “trending topics”? And do they not risk an oversimplification of the injustices they describe? As a complex situation, such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign for the release of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, tends to be reduced to a simple hashtag. Not everyone that shared the hashtag realised the potential consequences of an increased media attention.


To conclude, it is nowadays hard to imagine a protest without a hashtag. Some are successful, others not. Some use hashtags to gather people, others to gain (more) media coverage or to change perceptions. Hard to deny that hashtags did not become part of protests. One should, however, never forget to critical reflect upon each hashtag, its potential consequences and purpose, before sharing it. I keep wondering though what does happen to hashtags after a protest? Are they still used by some? Did they get new meanings?


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