Yes, hashtags can be trivial and annoying — but discussion threads like #YesAllWomen can also be powerful

Anyone who has spent any time on Twitter (s twtr) is probably well aware of the downsides of a real-time communications platform that connects millions of people, but also forces them to express their views in a message roughly the length of a bumper sticker or T-shirt slogan. When complicated topics like sexual abuse or gun control arise, Twitter often explodes with righteous indignation, trolling and other noise — and the killings on May 23 in California are no exception, since the killer appears to have been a violent misognyist intent on killing women.

Much has already been written about the killer’s 141-page manifesto, in which he detailed his hatred of women who refused his sexual advances and plotted what he called his “Day of Retribution,” and the ongoing debate over whether his crimes were driven primarily by mental illness or the misogynist views of society in general and the “Men’s Rights” movement in particular (I’m not naming the killer here, in part because publicity is the one thing such people seem to crave).

That debate continued to rage on Twitter over the weekend, but from it emerged something interesting: A hashtag thread — #YesAllWomen — that combined some of the best and the worst elements of Twitter discussions, but in the end showed how powerful even an abbreviated and noise-filled conversation about an important issue can be. Will it actually change anyone’s mind on the issue of society’s tolerance of misogyny or the men’s-rights movement? I have no idea, but it was still fascinating and moving to read and follow, and that is worth something.

Hashtags are a double-edged sword

In many cases where complex issues arise on Twitter, the hashtag becomes a kind of weapon aimed at anyone who disagrees, and also a lightning rod that attracts the very behavior the discussion is trying to repel — and there was certainly plenty of that on the #YesAllWomen thread, including some “mansplaining” and even outright abuse. In other cases, hashtags can become a dumping ground of “slacktivism,” a gesture of solidarity so inconsequential that it accomplishes nothing, and there was plenty of this on the #YesAllWomen thread as well.

University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who is one of the most perceptive researchers on social media and its effects, has written about how hashtags and the low-level activism they support can be a double-edged sword: how they can empower dissidents in Egypt or Turkey and spur them to action, but also how they can (paradoxically) help give power to the thing they are fighting against, and replace what might be a more lasting form of resistance with an ephemeral discussion that eventually fizzles out, having achieved very little.

It would be easy to see the #YesAllWomen thread as just this kind of ephemeral discussion, one that will likely fail to generate any substantial change in society’s views about misogyny or how men approach issues like the UCSB killer. But even if it doesn’t produce legislation or topple the Men’s Rights movement, the fact that it allowed many women — some of whom had never spoken publicly about their abuse, or what it’s like to live in fear — to share their experiences with others, many of whom they might not even know, is a worthwhile thing.

The potential for a tipping point

As Tufekci described in a piece about the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt in 2012, one of the most powerful things about social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook is the “weak ties” they create between complete strangers, and how those ties can provide a feeling of solidarity with others who share a certain experience or point of view. In some cases, that can create a kind of tipping point that spurs a particular group to action, as it did in Egypt.

“It is in this context Facebook ‘likes’ of dissident pages such as ‘We are All Khaled Said,’ sharing of videos of regime brutality, online expressions of political anger, and acceptances of Facebook ‘invitations’ to protest all matter as they help build a visible momentum which, itself, is a condition of success.”

But even if those feelings of solidarity with complete strangers doesn’t result in a revolution, there is still value in the discussion — and much of that value comes from the fact that it occurs in public, on a platform that allows anyone to participate. In other words, the exact same qualities that generate the noise and bad behavior that make such discussions problematic (as they are on sites like Reddit or 4chan) are what make them so powerful in the first place.

Speaking as a man, and therefore part of the group that the #YesAllWomen thread was directed at (the name refers to the “Not all men” defence that many provide when the topic of violence towards women comes up), I found following the hashtag to be raw, disturbing, thought-provoking, challenging and many other things besides. In other words, the best kind of discussion. And now it’s up to me and everyone else who took part to put some of those feelings into action.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / mangostock