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The Dynamics of Feminist Hashtags

The next speaker at AoIR 2016 is Jacqueline Vickery, whose focus is on the use of feminist hashtags such as #YesAllWomen as networked publics. These combine affective expressions of support with intimate citizenship and political activism in an ad hoc way. Political and affective dimensions are combined with the goals of such actions, and coordinated through the affordances of the platforms, such as the mechanism of hashtags themselves.

Hashtags are curational, polysemic, memetic, enable duality and tension across communities of practice, and support articulated subjectivities. Within them occur dynamics of agenda setting, re-framing, cooptation, (strategic) essentialism, awareness and mobilisation, and the amplification (or silencing) of specific narratives.

The hashtags Jacqueline has examined address discrimination or violence against women, and were often started by women of colour – but those origins are often backgrounded in further hashtag usage. Some speakers and authors are also beginning to integrate the hashtags and their sentiments into their professional activities, and this is problematic but also part of the uncontrollability of hashtags themselves. Some companies and commercial services also tapped into the audience emerging for the hashtags, often resulting in very significant backlash.

At the same time, the hashtags have the power to change agendas and engender conversations; they must also be viewed from the perspective of social movement theory. How these hashtags are designed is crucial in this context; some very generic hashtags become so widely and diversely used that they lose all distinct meaning, while others do drive some genuine change.