This past weekend, it was estimated that more than a million people participated in women's marches around the country. That number alone is an impressive demonstration, but the march was even more massive across social media. On Instagram, there are 1,257,766 photos and videos with the hashtag #WomensMarch; and 11 million tweets have been sent using the hashtag since January 11.
We are officially in the age of hashtivism, where a hashtag can not only unify a movement — it can fuel and guide it forward.
Social activism on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook is not new. Over the past few years, we've seen the success of concise, shareable phrases, including #YesAllWomen, #BringBackOurGirls, #NoDAPL, and, perhaps the most recognizable and influential of them all, #BlackLivesMatter. But if the past week is any indication, hashtivism is set to explode over the next four years, becoming more dominant than ever before.
Part of this rise could be attributed to our new president, whose prolific tweeting and prominence in the news cycle, "may be a catalyst for driving political discussions, further fueling activism and spurring mainstream awareness," according to Evan Asano, CEO of influencer marketing agency Mediakix.
While a tweet's message can get coverage in the news, it's the hashtag that has staying power and serves as a call to action. That's because hashtags aggregate content, making it easy for people and brands to not only identify and engage with a cause, but to easily see who else is sharing the same message, says Stephanie Abrams Cartin, the cofounder of social media agency Socialfly.
Add to that the power and speed with which you can send a tweet or post an Instagram photo, and a movement that would once have required a lot of time and energy to organize offline can now take off almost instantly. "Being able to reach an extremely large number of people very quickly, using very few resources is unparalleled in human history," says Nick Schulte, the vice president of direct voter contact at Axiom Strategies, a political mail and digital strategy firm.
But, these pluses are also drawbacks, Schulte says: "Ease of use and access means well-meaning movements can be hijacked and troll movements can pop up out of nowhere, all of which also makes it hard for independent parties to get any sense of what's going on."
Cartin points out that hashtags have the same potential as our Facebook news feeds to create a bubble that gives us a false sense of what's really going on outside of our immediate networks. For the most part, the #WomensMarch tweets are supportive and celebratory — and ultimately, an echo chamber.
Plus, even though a hashtag can unify sentiments online, turning an online movement into effective, in-person action requires a different level of commitment and organization altogether. Social media may be the place to spread the word, but the work needs to take place offline, in real life. #BlackLivesMatter has led to a legitimate organization and political movement because its founders supported a number of offline activities, from speeches to protests.
"Take the next step," Schulte says. "Organize, devise a plan of action, seek outside expertise, execute. It seems to me like we use social media as the goal instead of as a tool to reach our goals."
By all means, use hashtivism to make your voice heard because you can and should speak up to support issues you care about. But look at the opposing hashtags, too, and try to understand what other voices are saying. And recognize that a hashtag is a call to action, but it isn't the action. That requires phone calls, emails, and in-person engagement. So sign off, and get to work.