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

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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

14 Responses to “Yes, hashtags can be trivial and annoying — but discussion threads like #YesAllWomen can also be powerful”

  1. What Rodger did was to use blatant misogyny to fuel his anger and to justify his slaughter. The gender of his victims is almost unimportant as he sought to kill many more people in revenge (against women) but didn’t get the opportunity to do worse (thank heavens.) The problem is not how many men vs how many women he killed, it is that he killed as a reaction to his illness and his hatred of women.

    Thank you for discussing the power vs nonsense of hashtags. I’m sorry that it appears you attracted your own set of trolls.

  2. Brown

    How can this article be taken seriously if the author isn’t willing to even name the shooter? While I understand this is an opinion piece, leaving out facts on purpose is just shoddy journalism. If you have no intent to inform your readers on the situation how can they make informed decisions. The fact is that this happened and not using the name of the person who committed that crime doesn’t bring anybody back to life and it doesn’t stop sexual or physical assaults on either gender. Facts are objective, and this person should be known. Ignorance doesn’t “-de-glamourize” a criminal any more than it”glamourizes” it. No, hashtag protests aren’t going to change the mind of determined mass murderers, if you want to make a difference get into politics, get into journalism and EDUCATE or take the unfortunate risk of actually protesting in person and getting your head kick in by an overzealous cop. Occupy Wall Street fizzled out because it was uncoordinated and leaderless. Yes social media helped to spark the Egyptian revolution, which has since become increasingly violent. They traded one oppressive government for another. Misogynistic shootings are not new yet barely anyone knows who Marc Lepine is or mentions the Montreal Polytech shootings. This has been a topic of discussion for decades. The reason its important to take a look at the killer is because only by understanding why and how people commit such atrocities can we prevent them from happening again. Pretending the killer doesn’t exist is just wilful ignorance. Perhaps if every person who contributes to this campaign lobbies, votes and holds actual organized protests this will be more than a trend. Change obviously needs to occur. Better gun control laws, educational staff training for early warning signs, and a mental health system that actually works. I have no doubt that misogyny is culturally entrenched, yet all the focus is on the “media” portrayal. The media is not a big computer, it doesn’t all report the same thing, nor is all of it misogynistic or racist. Its a field of business full of conflicting political interests, advertisers opinions, and individual writers. After all Germany and Britain both have mass media, and consume american entertainment products like music and movies, yet Margaret Thatcher was one of England’s longest serving PM’s and also was responsible for the Falklands War. The Chancellor of one of europe’s most powerful states, Germany, is also female. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the developed world not to elect a female head of state. Even India, one of the countries with the most reported rapes in the world, was led by a woman, Indira Ghandi. Hashtags are great and all but how about focusing on getting more women elected into political positions? Because this “discussion” is doing more to raise tensions than ease them.

  3. Ashley

    To Kirk: We feel sad for ALL the victims. We also know that more men were killed in the attack. The point is not about the gender of the victims, but WHY they were killed. He was insane, but he also was a symptom of a deeper problem within the US and around the world. He was upset that women did not want to have sex with him. This is not a slight a men. This is a discussion about MISOGNY. Do not let your hurt feelings distract you from the very real, very true fact that every single womam you know has had a man feel entitled to access to her body, been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped. We are not accusing “all men” of anything. We are relating our experiences with certain men. We are having an important discussion about the safety and well being the women in this country. How DARE you make this about you.

  4. Srikanth Remani

    hashtags can have all the powers – I for one feel sad for “ALL” the victims, 4 MALE & 2 FEMALE. Lets the intelligentsia chew on his 140 pages of rant.

  5. Matthew, thank you for writing this. I do want to point out that of the three Tweets you embedded, only one was from woman. I think it’s important to focus on the voices of women for any coverage of this hashtag, since women’s voices are so often silenced. Thanks again for the excellent write-up.

  6. Maybe if the hashtag did not represent a purely political motive, there would a better chance at making a difference.
    As I read the different #yessallwomen threads, there were lots of errors in the facts. The most outstanding was the premiss that Elliot killed a bunch of women because he was misogynistic, when in fact it he killed more men than women and it was because he was insane.
    The fact that he kill twice as many men as women in the attack rarely gets mentioned.
    The fact that men in this country are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime and or killed in part of a crime seems to be irrelevant to the feminists who fear unsolicited attention from men.
    Our society seems to favor women over men in the victim arena. A woman with a black eye will get much more sympathy than a man with a black eye, even if they both were received in the same manor. The #yesallwomen thread is using this advantage. Violence against women is reprehensible, but no more so than violence period.
    Scores of boys were burned alive in the Sudan and no hashtag came from the WH, but 300 girls are abducted and the world is called to action.

      • I disagree, but more importantly he makes another very good point.

        This hashtag was spawned from the ill ravings of a lunatic and is a political move used to bring third wave feminism into the spotlight and to generate turmoil between the genders. Especially since #YesAllWomen is in direct reply to #NotAllMen. #NotAllMen was a plea for understanding from the largely outspoken mens rights movement as prominent feminist figures and the community as a whole are not often criticized for making wide generalizations or held to the same standards that men are and those that speak against them are quickly labelled misogynistic and dismissed underhandedly.

        Even the author of this article mentioned the “toppling of the mens rights movement” positively which shows a severe misunderstanding of what the movement is about and is something that i think is representative of societies understanding as a whole.

      • ChristineR

        Four men out of six people were killed by a deranged narcissists who wanted to “wipe all men from the face of the Earth” and Feminists are actively jumping on this as a “proof” women are always in danger.

        When REPEATED tweets blatantly stated ALL men were to blame for this shooting, people responded with the completely unoffensive fact that not all men are like that.

        What happened? #YesAllWomen declaring that #NotAllMen is somehow MEN trying to take the centre stage in a mass shooting of men? In direct response to men being blamed for the shooting as a gender men are the sexist ones?

        So people responded with #YesAllPeople and guess what? Feminists AGAIN appropriated the tragedy for their own sexist, misandrist goals and declared the #YesAllPeople hashtag to be “men being sexist”. Which is odd, since it was started by a woman.

        I’m pretty sure it’s YOU and your fellow Feminists that are MISSING THE POINT. And not just missing the point but blatantly ignoring the victims to further your own twisted sexist agenda. Reading through those tweets raging about #NotAllMen (something that exist long before this tragedy) and #YesAllPeople I can almost word for word spot the same deliberate ignorance and deranged sexist insanity as Elliot Rodgers.

        • Christine R, he was a narcissist who wanted to “wipe all WOMEN from the face of the Earth” and not “all men” as you misquoted. Feminism is about equality for all, not just one gender or another.

        • Salvatron

          Still missing the point.

          The fact that most of his victims were men does not diminish his mysognystic motives, in fact it simply highlights another overlooked aspect of misogyny – MYSOGYNY DESTROYS MEN, in addition to women.

          Many innocent and well-meaning men are caught in the crossfire in the fight against mysogyny. You can easily see the way mysogynystic “Men’s Rights Activists” and their dim-witted female suporters dismiss, ridicule, or attack the men who sympathize or support feminism.

          And in this case – the consequences for the men were deadly. His hate for women was so strong, that anyone near to them was his enemy. Not entirely different from the way most mysogynyst MRA’s view their male competition, with the exception of death of course.

  7. This is by far the best article I’ve read on the subject yet. Not many look beyond the discussion itself at it’s form. The discussion is really important and tells us a lot about how much today’s society is still divided by stereotypes and uncivilised actions and words, but the way it is being held also shows us many things about the world we live in. Maybe even more than the topic itself.