By its nature, protest challenges the distribution of social and political space, as it calls out power dynamics and established truths that inhabit it. The anatomy of grassroots movements highlights the tension between occupied space – the mental and often physical origin of rebellion, and the possibilities of expanding this occupation. This relationship is further complicated by the changes digitally networked action brings to the organisation of protest. How does collective action change as it turns into connective action?
Digital platforms feed into the structural fragmentation and individualisation of societies today, paradoxically enhancing connectivity and mirroring the spatiality of protest: the public square is now the platform, and groups of activists are now digital enclaves, linked by tracking algorithms. An artefact of this digital culture of protest is the hashtag, which becomes a social movement instrument, ensuring a successful deployment of tangible realities of protest across connective platforms.
As part of last year´s protests against racial injustice and police brutality in the US, the hashtag played a central role in claiming portions of digital space for specific causes, and operating a mirroring of the physical demonstrations, as stand-ins for instances of social injustice, and valid calls for policy change. The epitome of this, #blacklivesmatter transformed the role of the activist digital handle, by pushing a critical re-framing of discourse around the tragedy of extrajudicial violence against black people. By being both inclusive and descriptive of the content it “tags,” the hashtag operates a process of negotiating cultural realities, beyond the mere dissemination and immediate conversion of events. With every reposting, #blacklivesmatter negates the implied “black lives do not matter,” thus attempting to exclude racism as a viable component of social reality.
The hashtag describes, sums up, re-plays, while it simultaneously produces and reproduces new meanings. With every new photo uploaded and shared under the hashtag #ferguson, the events and realities of the brutal death of Michael Brown were enhanced, the narrative marching on, much like the marching of activists in a public square. The visual reproductions of these horrible events and of the social turmoil following them have a life of their own, in which the hashtag plays a crucial part.
The hashtag brings order in what would otherwise be indistinguishable clutter. Ironically, the racial injustice activism hashtags order the visual and discursive markers of social and political disorder, thus launching a dialogue between message and medium, content and channel, existing realities and imagined realities. The hashtag offers a way for the apparent chaos of protest to order itself, embracing an emerging logic, which, according to theorists W. Lance Bennet and Alexandra Segerberg, transforms collective action into connective action. In this new architecture of protest, the sharing of personalised content across platforms ensures a strengthening of individuals´ political capacities for organised dissent, essentially adding to the effectiveness of their action.
The discursivity of the hashtag, its primary function as a text is paralleled by that of a metatext, a stand-alone, ever-growing authority of reflection and criticism. In the wake of Eric Garner´s shooting, his last words, “I can't breathe,” became a hashtag, a body of political and cultural meaning amassing memory, performance, identity, and absence. Garner´s death, and that of every victim of police violence, leaves an empty space, one that the protesters attempt to fill with their own bodies. It is this space, and, in fact, this time that the hashtag helps reclaim: the very architecture of the cross-platform hyperlink follows a logic of order, of managing spatiality and temporality. The activist hashtag is a cultural product of our times, but it is also the raw material to be used in the forging of a new order of space, action, and life.
Words: Elena Stanciu