In Defense of Hashtags

Shonda Rhimes delivered Dartmouth’s commencement speech this past week and it was so great because SHE is so great—except when she takes a dig as hashtags.

Here’s what she said:

A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething

Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show. I do it all the time. For me, it’s Game of Thrones.

Okay. So. A lot to unpack here. Shonda has perfected the art of the monologue (have you SEEN a Shonda show?) but she’s wrong about the social impact of hashtags. .

I don’t think anyone who uses a hashtag is claiming to be Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Ghandi or Susan B. Anthony or any of those big-time world-changers. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that a person tweeting under a socially minded hashtag has delusions of getting-their-name-in-the-history-books grandeur. Most people know that tweeting under a hashtag like #yesallwomen or #bringbackourgirls makes them a drop in the bucket.

But that’s the thing about Twitter. Every drop in that bucket is public and visible. And if you have enough people tweeting under a hashtag (and retweeting, and favoriting, and @replying and all the things you can do on Twitter) you prove to the world that your conversation is a conversation people care about. Your stats are out in the open. You have the numbers on your side.

Social activism hashtags lead to New York Times articles. They lead to our country’s leaders talking about what you’re tweeting about. They’re a master class for everyone who scrolls through the hashtag search results. I learned things because of the people who posted using the #yesallwomen hashtag. Hashtags are movements, and the hashtag movement has superpowers other movements do not. You can get more people together on Twitter than you can get to march on Washington. The optics aren’t as awesome. A person sitting on their butt thumbing away on their iPhone just doesn’t LOOK as noble as a person holding up a picket sign. It doesn’t LOOK as front-page worthy, but that hasn’t stopped hashtags from making the front page. Hashtags are a way for people all across America (all across the world, really) to stand together, talk about what matters to them, gain media attention, and push their cause forward.

In her speech Rhimes urges her listeners to pick a cause and commit themselves fully to that thing they believe in. I’m a hundred percent in agreement with her here. But it’s not an either/or situation. You can be getting off your butt and doing something and using hashtags as a tool to do whatever that something is. It’s easy to trivialize social media, but it’s dishonest to imply that its users aren’t helping their causes. Just because activism doesn’t look like what it looked like fifty years ago doesn’t stop it from being activism.