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Hashtags will matter again

“The levels of wit, critical thinking, domain knowledge, netspeak literacy, digital acumen — and, of course, diversity — on display in these conversations should have editors sitting up and taking note.”

Earlier this year, Daniel Victor published a righteous takedown of Twitter hashtags, pointing to the use of #SuperBowl as a case study in the worst excesses of the form. On Super Bowl Sunday, by his count, #SuperBowl showed up 3 million times during the five-hour broadcast, at an average rate of 167 tweets per second. “Hashtags for big news stories are particularly vulnerable to mathematical futility,” he wrote. “Getting any single person’s attention is just short of impossible, like a single Niagara droplet screaming for notice as it shoots down the falls.”

tasneem-rajaPoint taken. During Occupy, for instance, reading my news feed felt like hacking through a jungle of #ows #occupy #occupyny #nypd, as news outlets tried reaching too many audiences at once. Of course, there are plenty of good ways to use a hashtag: as a knowing wink or a signal of sarcasm, a way of finding friends at a conference, or, one of my favorite uses, an ephemeral vehicle of crowdsourced wordplay, like #bookdrinks (Tequila Mockingbird, Gone With the Wine). But a quick scan of recent tweets from @nytimes, @slate, and @buzzfeed doesn’t reveal a single earnest or seemingly traffic-seeking hashtag. Outpaced by better Twitter search features and downvoted by those with good taste, the utilitarian, crowd-gathering hashtag has come to feel useless and passe.

But lately, I’ve been noticing an interesting trend of hashtag usage that’s got me thinking about the possibilities of the form again. This weekend, for instance, you may have noticed #NotYourAsianSidekick bubbling up in your feed (especially if you follow a sizeable number of people who aren’t straight white men). It was the top trend in the U.S. for much of Sunday, started by writer and activist Suey Park to crowdsource messages about stereotyping and the Asian-American experience. Sample tweets from the nearly 50,000 messages with the tag in just over 24 hours: “The clothes I wear to weddings aren’t for you to wear on Halloween #NotYourAsianSidekick” and “#NotYourAsianSidekick because I don’t co-sign the anti-blackness implied when we’re propped up as the ‘model minority.'” Anyone who’s ever dismissed the possibility of serious discussion on Twitter would have to admit: That’s some real talk. Salon said the tag “ignite[d] massive conversation about race, stereotypes and feminism,” and Park’s “campaign” was covered by the BBC, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, among many others.

Digital feminism has been busy on the viral hashtag front this year. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen called out thorny issues of race and class in feminist media, with Gawker site Jezebel drawing much of the heat. BuzzFeed included Mikki Kendall, who started the tag, in its roundup of “30 Women Who Kicked Ass In 2013,” for “bringing race into the online feminist conversation.” (Meanwhile, several sites got dinged on Twitter for initially failing to credit Kendall as the originator of the meme, bringing up interesting issues of attribution and sourcing when covering these fast-moving, viral conversations.)

But what’s the offline payoff of all this online conversation? Can campaigns like Park’s move the needle IRL, or is this another case of “clicktivism” masquerading as political action? As David Carr noted in a rumination on “hashtag activism,” #Komen helped push the Susan G. Komen Foundation into reversing a decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. And #bindersfullofwomen certainly didn’t help Mitt Romney’s attempts to win over women voters, and probably helped drive more of the crucial demographic to Obama.

Then there’s #blacktwitter. If you haven’t heard of #blacktwitter, you’re missing out on one of the best parts of Twitter. Shani O. Hilton at Buzzfeed describes it as “loosely speaking, a group of thousands of black Twitterers (though, to be accurate, not everyone within Black Twitter is black, and not every black person on Twitter is in Black Twitter) who are interested in issues of race in the news and pop culture and b) tweet A LOT.” Much more than a hashtag at this point, Hilton notes that Black Twitter has been widely credited with bringing the Trayvon Martin case to national attention, the success of Scandal, and the toppling of Paula Deen over racist remarks. More recently, Black Twitter hijacked the #AskRKelly hashtag hosted by the singer and alleged child molester, turning a PR gimmick into a searing conversation on Kelly’s stardom and the treatment of young black women in the broader culture.

“Sure, hashtags come and go,” writes Carr, “and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place.”

So what are newsrooms supposed to make of all this? In the case of #NotYourAsianSidekick and several of the Black Twitter memes, the hashtag wasn’t used to keep up with an event. The hashtag was the event. So far, most mainstream sites covering these hashtag happenings end up simply embedding a curated list of the tweets in the form of a roundup (or a Storify), with a bit of intro up top that often feels perfunctory. Keeping a record of these events is well and good, but it seems to me there’s a lot more to be mined here.

If you really want to be #winning, think of these tags as hunting grounds for future hires and (paid) contributors. The levels of wit, critical thinking, domain knowledge, netspeak literacy, digital acumen — and, of course, diversity — on display in these conversations should have editors sitting up and taking note. As #solidarityisforwhitewomen was surging, Roxane Gay started a new column at Salon soliciting paid submissions from feminists of color (of any gender) to run on the site. “The #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation about digital feminism and inclusion has made it clear that more publications need to create opportunities for feminists of color to share their perspectives,” she wrote.

That’s a great move, and smaller steps are also good. Journalists, especially journalists who write about cultural politics and marginalized groups, have both a professional incentive and an ethical obligation to seek out authentic, fresh, informed sources on issues they’re trying to write about. Think of hashtags like #NotYourAsianSidekick as the best Rolodex you could ever have for sources on these issues. Don’t think of the conversations they spawn as just free content ripe for cutting-and-pasting into a blog post and call it a day. They’re springboards for reporting, at the very least.

You could research the often decades-long backstories to these conversations, for instance, and write a piece that adds historical context to the trending topic. And I’ve seen plenty of unsourced stats and claims that surface during these conversations — from all sides of the debate — get passed around like Twitter hotcakes: Fact-check that mess.

Thankfully, the days of broad, generic callouts — #china, #politics, #food — from serious media sites seem to be behind us. But the use of micro-targeted hashtags that land with big impact is fascinating, and we’re going to see a lot more of these in 2014. #bringiton

Tasneem Raja is interactive editor of Mother Jones. She thanks Tim Carmody for contributing smart ideas to this piece.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20