#Hashtagging the Streets

From #BlackLivesMatter to #UmbrellaMovement, activist hashtags are global and viral. Why do we bring them to physical protests?

A photo essay composed thanks to online searches of hashtags. All images credited to the original photographer.

Why do we bring hashtags to the streets? The use of a hash (#) mark before a word has long indicated topicality and group affiliation on the web, from the original IRC channels to Twitter’s popularization of the convention and now into many other social networks.

Today, in activist contexts, just adding a # to a phrase can make it a certain kind of political statement in and of itself. The new-ness of this convention in physical space is part of what makes it stand out, but I do think there’s more behind it.

“Black Lives Matter”, the phrase without the hash sign, can be a form of microaffirmation, an affirmation of worth and a reminder of dignity. For those in the know, it’s an organization and part of a larger effort.

#BlackLivesMatter is that, too, but a little bit more: it’s more explicitly a common reference point, a way to join hands across space. For those familiar with internet conventions, to write #BlackLivesMatter is to say, implicitly, “It’s not just me. It’s not just here in this space. We are part of something bigger. We are part of a conversation.”

That conversation can be supportive or critical, but it is a conversation.

Hashtags in physical protests collapse the false premises of digital dualism. The work social change agents engage in online is deeply connected to their work offline. Though separate actions, they are part of the same movement.

This photo taken above is situated in a football field in Wisconsin, but it will be found by anyone searching online for #NotYourMascot. With a simple #, 13 people who’ve come together in physical space are associated with thousands of Tweets in digital space and gatherings all over the country.

Hashtags reach across time and space, collapsing them on the internet into a shared conversation. A gathering in Wisconsin is tied to a gathering in California five months later. These actions are interconnected, they are each one part of a larger whole. Each sign, each tweet, each photo is a tiny contribution.

Images, too, can cross fluidly between the increasingly seamless boundaries of the digital and physical. An umbrella meme disseminated online and a series of tiny umbrellas strung whimsically above the streets share the same visual language in Occupy Hong Kong.

It’s not clear which is the expression of the other, i.e., which is forebear and which is offspring. Perhaps that’s less important than knowing that they are both part of the same visual strategy: a symbol for a movement.

Beyond the imagery, the #UmbrellaMovement hashtag carries force because it makes the digital-physical connection explicit, an internet-native form of expression made present in print. It is a movement that coexists with the internet, a movement whose verbal and visual expression is potent enough to be censored in Mainland China.

The hashtag, in this context, carries another connotation: freedom of the internet and freedom of assembly do not happen accidentally. Indeed, these freedoms arguably share a common set of values—that people should be free to associate in physical and digital spaces, so long as no harm is caused to others.

Hong Kong is not alone in this story. When media in Turkey censored footage of Occupy Gezi Park, citizens turned to the internet to get around the censorship; when citizens were barred from large gatherings in the park, they started a “standing man” meme. It was a photo meme largely conducted in physical space but distributed in digital space with the help of bilingual hashtags—#standingman and #duranadam.

Bilingual hashtags, like #occupygezi and #direnistanbul, face an English-speaking media and a Turkish-speaking people. They reflect a conversation across cultures and continents, a bridge from a diaspora reaching out to kith, kin and strangers in Turkey and abroad. With the help of hashtags, people in a physical park in Istanbul and those in a physical park in New York City could clearly express their connection.

Image CC BY Daniel Latorre

The funny thing about hashtags is that you rarely speak them aloud. (Not without sounding silly or ironic.) You can say the phrase, but the # goes silent until it is seen, scribbled or spraypainted in the physical world or typed out in the digital world.

That makes hashtags more commonly a written, rather than spoken, utterance. The visual appearance of the # nudges them toward being verbal-visual symbols. The # visually suggests a bond, and the words suggest what the bond is about.

By writing them down, we give them a sort of permanence and self-reflexivity. They are out there in the world, and we, and others, can see them and document them. So many people attending protests today post pictures and videos straight to their social networks, and the # is like a hint: when you upload this to your site, this is how you should tag it.

With the help of hashtags, media about activists can be archived and explored and mined for data trends (this is not always a good thing). The very searchability of hashtags is how I composed this photoessay of different movements around the world. Each contribution is part of a living, growing archive.

Like a physical protest and chanted slogans, the amplification of hashtags brings voice to the voiceless. Their words can echo in hearts and minds as an invitation to those observing on the sidelines. Some people clap along (fav), some people shout out a few times from afar (retweet), some people watch quietly.

But hashtags can also be hijacked and transformed into another story to serve another end. They can be co-opted. They can be used in a meta way to critique the hashtag itself. On a participatory medium, visibility brings new risks.

#BringBackOurGirls was launched in Nigeria to raise attention about abducted schoolchildren in the country. The hashtag, crafted and refined over time, became part of the message, transforming quickly from a national issue to an international one. It went viral, reaching as far as the United Nations (see below), the Vatican and the White House.

Image CC BY-NC-ND UN Women

But as the hashtag entered new contexts and cultures, its origins and intentions were very soon co-opted and/or misunderstood. Some claimed ownership, others used it for serve their agendas. The rapid shifts reflected, on a global development scale, the risks of using a hashtag, even one that brought much-needed attention to the story.

And attention, as Zeynep Tufekci has written, is complicated:

Once unleashed, attention has its own destructive, powerful wings and breath of fire over which those who unleash it often have little control. Because attention scares me, especially when wielded by the powerless, who need attention more than anyone else, because it escapes their hands so quickly.

Political hashtags do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they neutral. They are both beautiful and dangerous, a group hug in which anyone can—and often does—join in, for better or for worse. Like all forms of human expression, they are messy and complicated, never quite black and white in usage as we would like them to be. Hashtags can bring power, but there are always those with more power.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Sarah-ji

One thing is increasingly clear: Hashtags are anything but meaningless appendages to the larger movement, anything but slacktivism, and this is why they’re worth paying attention to. They can be deeply powerful words and gestures, made effective in their accumulation as the number of utterances grows.

We bring hashtags—a digital form of expression—to physical protests because the digital and the physical were never that far away from each other. Hashtags carry connotations far beyond the internet, and the viral ones sit in our heads long after the protest has died down; and the actions we take in offline space are a few clicks and snaps away from manifesting online too, tied together with the same tags. The way we live, think and express ourselves online is deeply entwined with the way we live offline.

A hashtag in the physical world says this movement, no matter how small or large, is not alone. It is a movement of many, gathering on the streets and scattered across the web. Click around, and you’ll find them.


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