Yesterday I dropped by an inspiring symposium on Public Lives/Private Platform: The Politics of Twitter organized by Matt Cornell and co. at the University of Amsterdam. Was a great, self-organized space for activists, academics, journalists, and critical tech enthusiasts of many sorts. The keynote lecture by Jillian York on the history of the hashtag was very cool and it was a pleasure to meet her.
Jillian proposed the following interesting things that hashtags do on Twitter, from her perspective as a user who has been active, for instance, around the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and worked closely with activists, the media, and civil society:
One of the examples she discussed was the Iran election protests of 2009. And she also identified one of the emerging problems on Twitter as hashtag hijacking, giving the example of #blacklivesmatter being hijacked by #alllivesmatter and #bluelives matter. This made me wonder about (more/less) effective hashtag hijacking by social movements. And I remembered the way #iranelection successfully hijacked #michaeljackson in the summer of 2009 (around his passing away) to remain the top trending topic and stay in media headlines longer – Negar Mottahedeh writes that #iranelection was the longest-running trending topic in Twitter’s global history at that time, and the successful hijack helped it achieve that status. And I also write about this example in my book as an instance of a savvy, transnationally-oriented movement revealing Twitter’s particular affordances for helping a movement to hold onto the international spotlight.
I asked Jillian about whether she had since come across any other example of such successful and high profile hashtag hijacking. She noted it was interesting that she hadn’t come across another case of it being done quite that successfully, although she did mention Britney Spears and Justin Bieber’s hashtags being hijacked by activists in the Syrian revolution, which I didn’t know about. It was also interesting find out that Twitter responded differently (i.e. not at all) to hashtag hijacking than YouTube had by taking a stance against such tagging practices for it not being the intended use of the platform. The stuck me as interesting, since it suggests that the successful hijacking of a hashtag isn’t the same as just muddying it with (oppositional) noise and is actually pretty rarely carried out with force, despite the platform’s technical features remaining the same.
This seems to reflect how the affordances of a platform are not just built into it technically but are actually revealed through people’s usage practices. This is basically the way affordances have been theorized by anthropologists like Daniel Miller, who have been studying social media through this approach for a while. But it also seems to go beyond showing how usage practices are important to look at rather than the design of the platform alone. I think the character of a particular political moment might help explain why the same kind of usage of the same platform (e.g. hashtag hijacking) can lead to different aggregate results in different instances, therefore revealing different affordances (just muddying a hashtag rather than actually being able to use it to get your own hashtag to trend higher up in the ranking, or for longer).
So is it just me or is there something about the focus on the user-platform interaction (that theorizations of affordances focus on most) that leaves out the role of collective sentiments, aggregate social dynamics, and, lets say, the temporality of the rise of a certain political spirit? And isn’t this strange given that these are precisely the phenomena that the hashtag as a technical function and Twitter as a platform have perhaps connected with the most in their history? I wonder whether other examples of hashtag hijacking by political movements that I don’t know about might suggest the same thing. Also, this is particular interesting to me given the affective/emotional/sentimental dimensions of digital media use. That’s a topic for another post, but it does connect nicely with this highlight about #heart from Jillian’s presentation: