Geek As Citizen: Hashtag, Crashtag

I assume that you heard about the #CancelColbert hashtag on Twitter. I’m going to assume you did but the rough summary is:

  1. Colbert did a skit mocking racism in the name of the Washington Redskins.
  2. Part of the joke was retweeted, including his mockery of racism towards Asians.
  3. The joke on its own looked hideously racist (it was removed).
  4. Hashtag activist Suey Park tweeted the #CancelColbert hashtag.
  5. The internet had an intelligent discussion of racism, parody, and society.

I’m joking about #5 of course. I’d say the conversation degenerated, but the conversation never really generated. I watched a lot of the back and forth, which took on the air of a tennis game with grenades instead of balls. Eventually it got bizarre, snipy, weird, and in fine internet debate tradition, people directed racist and sexist comments at Suey Park and others.

As you may have guessed nothing good came out of this that I can find.

So when Salon interviewed Ms. Park, I was glad to read it to get her thoughts and can say for certain I have almost no idea what the hell she was talking about.

I get that she actually didnt want Colbert cancelled. Someone in the comments noted she seemed to sa that using one form of racism to mock another is a bad idea – which is something worth considering. But in general, I actually am not sure of what she’s doing, trying to do, or thinking and I read it twice. I actually liked her #NotYourAsianSidekick as it got me thinking, and now I’m not sure what to think.

#CancelColbert achieved nothing. In fact, now as I look back on various forms of hashtag activism, facebook likes for causes, I think we need to consider just what we’re doing. Or not doing.

And we geeks love our hashtags and our social media.

(In)activism Via Repost

Now I’m not going to diss hashtag activism and other forms of awareness raising campaigns. I’ve participated in some. I’ve learned from some. But as I looked over the smoking ruins of #CancelColbert, I began thinking about other times I’d seen some kind of post go viral, something that “made people aware” and then nothing happened – or nothing positive.

You know how it goes. You see that hashtag, or that relative sends out that Facebook post and you shrug and ignore it – but others are taking it seriously. Or you take something seriously and tweet the hck out of something. But I’ve wondered what good we’re doing.

Our problems these days are not always due to awareness. We can be very, very aware of things. In some cases we have to find new ways to block out distactions. In far too many cases we use the technology at hand, that makes us aware, to merely make us aware of a narrow band of thought and information. You wonder if those reposts and hashtags ever made it out enouh to make a difference – and if something can be a #CancelColbert type clusterbungle.

I think reposting, hashtag activism, etc. too easily gives us the illusion of making change. There’s an action (pushing a few buttons), there’s a sense of community (everyone else doing it), and there’s even a sense of history where everyone talks about how social media created the Arab Spring. However, a lot of people in the Arab Spring got outside, protested, and bled, as opposed to coming up with new hashtags.

There’s even a joke around here about the Google Bus protests that roughly goes “I’m upset with technology companies bringing about gentrification, so I’m going to post to Facebook about it.”

Any talk of the Arab Spring misses the getting off your butt part in a lot of cases, as well as facing real bloodshed.

The Active Part Of Activism

I think a lot of hashtag activism and by-post activism misses the point that activism needs to be active – you have to really do something. Not push a button, not make a snarky comment – for that matter not necessarily writing a blog post. You need to go do something that makes a difference – and that can be messy and unpleasant and bloody.

What I often see missed in activism is what to do beyond reposting or commenting. A good post or hashtag includes some actual plan for action, someone to donate to, something to do – a list of instructions. A good bit of internet activism starts something and builds a community or works with a community to make something happen.

Much as Facebook can give us the illusion we have more real friends than we do, it’s easy for us to get the illusion we’re doing something.

My first takeaway from this is that awareness is good (indeed, I regularly retweet interesting news and such), but if you want something to happen, you have to show what people can do and how they can get involved.

Since I saw the #CancelColbert mess, I’ve been monitoring my behavior in this regard. It’s very easy to post things or retweet them and not think about actions or what to do, and I do it as well.

But I think if we’re going to get active hashtags, posts, etc. need to give you a next step.

In fact, I think this is where #CancelColbert really fell down is that it came as a direction that wasn’t a direction, in a 140 character medium. So what was apparently not a call to cancel Colbert’s show looked like one, and the result was a mess.

Through A Mirror Dorkly

I’d also add there’s a bit of a sinister side to the hashtag activism and activism by repost – we live in an age where people talk about how to work social media. Its in news articles and books, it’s discussed at websites and at businesses; how do we gt more followers, more hits, more attention. I’m sure you’ve had similar thoughts – I know I have about my projects.

But when you combine this “getting eyeballs” approach (shades of the first dot-bomb era) with hashtagging and activism-by-post, I wonder how much of what’s being said is brand-building and attention-getting, but not actually trying to do anything. I wonder what other engineered “activism” posts are there or are coming just so whoever starts them gets more followers, or some publicists rakes in money while nothing gets done.

For that matter, I wonder how much of this “social media marketing thing” has been normalized and we may not realize we’re doing it.


I remain hopeful about the use of online tools for activism, but think we’re clearly seeing how it doesn’t work in many cases, seeing its limits, and seeing the assumptions we have. Every repost of some crazy chain letter, every hashtag just used for rageposting, every attempt to build a brand by pissing people off, just takes us further away from getting things done. Getting things done is what activism is all about.

So I’d suggest if you do anything like this -and you may, be it for a political cause or just to promote a convention – figure out how to give people a way to get active. Have a direction, a way to do something. It keeps people active and keeps you honest.

– Steven Savage