In large part I hate hashtags for the same reason I hate most user-generated content tagging. The point of tagging is to organize data—tweets, blog posts, Word documents, porn pictures, whatever—with a taxonomy that makes it easy to find related data. But this isn’t what most crowd-sourced tagging systems get you. What you usually get are a lot of jokes, some of which are funny, many of which aren’t as funny as their tellers think. What seems to be unique to Twitter, though, is the concept of tags as activism.
My annoyance at “hashtag of rage” syndrome has hit a high twitch level watching reactions to “Twitter censorship,” Twitter’s recent blog post about a new system they’re putting in place which lets them censor tweets country-by-country based to comply with local laws. The rage machine around the Internets is in high dudgeon, but seems to have missed a few basic facts here.
- Twitter has already been deleting tweets when they get DMCA takedown notices or similar notices from other countries. They have to. It’s the law.
- This is not Twitter censoring people. It’s governments censoring people.
- With Twitter’s new system, they don’t have to delete Tweets globally. They can just block them locally.
- And with Twitter’s new system, they tell you when and why they block tweets. And they link you to ChillingEffects.org.
In fact, Twitter’s new system is as much of a political statement as they can make while not running afoul of laws: censorship will no longer happen silently. If you’re concerned about free speech, this is an undeniable improvement, not a step backward. So what exactly is the hashtag rage against Twitter supposed to accomplish? To get them to back down and go back to black-holing tweets globally without letting anyone know? “What do we want? LESS TRANSPARENCY! When do we want it? NOW!” Right then.
The Internet can be terrific as a tool for activist communication and organizing, as we’ve seen in the campaign against SOPA/PIPA, as well as in the ground campaigns of net-savvy politicians like Ron Paul and, for that matter, Barack Obama.1 But it also has an incredible echo chamber effect: believable-sounding lies spread faster than they can be refuted, single source conspiracy theories blossom into a hundred “supporting” articles, and well-intended but muddy reasoning creates rallying cries. Often those rallies don’t spur people to do more than sign an online petition—mostly useless2—or change their Twitter avatar—completely useless.
That’s the bad of Internet activism, but there’s also an ugly: “it’s somebody else’s responsibility to take the hits for what we want.” We want to write our protest signs and have somebody else march with them. By God, our service providers should stand up for what we believe in, secure in the knowledge that if they lose business, get shut down or even face jail time, we’ll write the angriest blog posts ever about that. Maybe not under our real name, you understand. Can’t be too careful.
Nowhere is this more evident than in quasi-groups like Anonymous, whose idea of activism is entirely based on causing fear of retribution. You didn’t want your server taken down? You shouldn’t have said or done something you knew we wouldn’t support. We spread your credit card information all over the net? You shouldn’t have done business with someone we don’t like. Your server was taken down because it was hosted at the same place our real target was? You shouldn’t have done business with people who do business with them. Members seem to genuinely see themselves as civil rights crusaders, missing the point that protesters put themselves at risk to draw attention to their cause. One doubts that unknown parties breaking into the Montgomery bus depot at midnight to slash tires and spray paint “W3 R L3G10N” on windshields would have had quite so profound an impact as Rosa Parks did.
Ironically, Anonymous shares a glaring flaw with DRM-pushers. Their methods are fundamentally incapable of achieving their goal, but they’re sufficient to annoy the hell out of everyone while they keep trying. The MPAA is not going to stop filing idiotic lawsuits out of concern their web site will be unavailable for 72 hours; the DOJ is not going to think twice about going after the next Megaupload for fear of hashtag vilification.
I’m not against stoking the fires of revolution on the Internet. SOPA and PIPA were stopped largely because of citizen action. But it’s tough to think of a single actual revolution whose leaders, at the least, weren’t willing to own those actions and face the risks. Those who fancy themselves to be Che Guevaras with keyboards might do well to remember that Guevara, whatever else he may have been, sure as hell wasn’t anonymous.
Although even here we can overstate that effect; Paul appears to be more popular with the kinds of people who organize on the Internet than he is with the kinds of people who vote in Republican primaries, and in terms of getting the nomination it’s only the second kind that matters. ↩
The only petition site in the United States that guarantees official responses is We the People, at whitehouse.gov. The responses so far have generally been thoughtful expansions on the theme “it’s more complicated than that.” ↩