The number sign, the pound sign or the officially named octothorpe. And if you still have no clue what I mean by this, I will explain – this time I will be talking about the hashtag.
The story of this symbol, which started 73 thousand years ago in South African caves, today transformed not only into a tool for increasing the number of likes and shares but also to a new form of civic activity – the hashtag activism.
The ability to link millions of posts in one word has turned social networks into platforms for social, political and environmental issues around the world. Everyone can now participate in solving the most important questions of the universe without getting off the coach. So let’s remember a few examples when a hashtag became something more than just a symbol on social networks.
In 2012 the US was struck by a tragedy when George Zimmerman shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. After this accident, a massive wave of protests began in the country, which was aroused by the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag spread on social networks, marking up to 30 million posts on Twitter. Support for this movement was expressed by athletes such as LeBron James and Serena Williams, many celebrities of the music world and even physically non-existent influencer Miquela Sousa.
There were many sceptics who criticized this coach activism, but demonstrations, performances and other forms of protest showed that hashtag did a great job in mobilizing and informing the society. Black Lives Matter today is a global organization that aims to stop discrimination and violence against the black minority around the world.
The social network forms of activism are not limited with only the convenient like and share. Sometimes they can literally act as a cold shower. Remember the year of 2014, when all your social network traffic has been jammed with the videos where people dump a bucket of water with ice on their head. Everyone was doing it – from politicians to people from the entertainment world, from businessmen to your neighbour. Why?
#IceBucketChallenge was as a wave that rippled around the world. The meaning of the challenge is simple: a person who has dumped ice-water on himself/herself from head to toe adds a hashtag to his/her post and challenges a few more friends to do the same. However, this funny joke sought to draw attention to the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the people who have it. The results of the Ice Bucket Challenge have a very clear numerical expression: almost 100 million pounds were collected during the campaign for the gene research that helped to find the causes of the disease and possible treatment strategies.
In 1963 the US President John F. Kennedy said to the Berlin citizens: “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Half a century later, social network users from all over the world have expressed their solidarity to France that was shocked by the attacks in Charlie Hebdo editorial office, by marking their posts with a similar phrase: #JeSuisCharlie (“I am Charlie”).
We all remember the tragic event in January of 2015 when three masked and armed attackers invaded the editorial office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In this way, the extremists expressed their reaction to the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad printed in the magazine. Just an hour after the attack, the posts with a hashtag have already been shared on social networks, but in the long run, it was not just respect for the dead but also a fight for freedom of the media and the freedom of speech.
At the end of the same year, Paris was shaken by new terrorist attacks, and this hashtag changed to #JeSuisParis. Some politicians have used it in a more ambiguous way: British politician David Ward expressed support for Palestine, saying #JeSuisPalestine, and extreme right-wing French politicians shared the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie Martel’, recalling the Franciscan ruler in the 8th century, who countered the Muslim invasion in the year 732.
It turns out that hashtag can not only unite but also separate. In 2015, when you met with your friends or family, did you argue with them about the colour of this dress? There is a joke that this question has broken up thousands of couples, confronted best friends, and was as popular as the Black Lives Matter movement. The debate around the world has been catalysed by nothing else but the hashtag #TheDress. However, this dispute has also had positive results – it has led to new research on how people perceive light and colours.
There were also some hashtag storms in Lithuania as well, for example, in 2016, when Andrius Tapinas in the episode of “Laikykitės ten” (EN: Hold on down there) asked politician Valentinas Mazuronis to support a new format channel on a pooled financing platform by one dollar. After his refusal, the hashtag #Valentinaiduokdolerį (EN: #Valentinasgivemeadollar) was released by social network users. Internet users not only added it to their posts but also flooded the politician account with them.
Hashtags can unite people after both, a world-shaking event and when dealing with long-term social problems. However, for it to be successful, there needs to be a strong and impressive message in an easy-to-remember form. Since social life is complicated, every initiative receives an opposition or a response – for example, a response to #BlackLivesMatter was the #AllLivesMatter campaign. On the other hand, the “noble” part of the action often fades and remains a fun pastime or a ritual. This would be proved by the simplest experiment – how many buddies of yours that dumped ice buckets on themselves knew about the purpose of this action?