Have We Underestimated the Power of the Hashtag?

They have sometimes been considered dorky or, worse, spammy

Hashtag activism is alive and well CurvaBezier/iStock

Hashtags, those little “pound symbols” accompanying a caption, post, or photo, have become as commonplace as emojis. And their ubiquity has made them incredibly effective: Tweets with hashtags earn twice as much engagement, and one study showed that Instagram posts with hashtags saw a 70 percent increase in likes compared with hashtag-free posts.

Add to that the fact that three-quarters of social media users are strapping hashtags onto their posts, and it seems like they are a force to be reckoned with.

But, like emojis, hashtags have sometimes been considered dorky or, worse, spammy. Multiple studies have found that using too many hashtags can actually hurt engagement, and some influencers and brands have found themselves in hot water by using hashtags erroneously. With 70 percent of Instagram hashtags being branded, that’s dangerous territory to wade into.

The problem is that we’ve too often viewed hashtags as branding collateral. What they’ve become are tools to influence brands and other powerful institutions to take feedback in a forum “owned” by the people.

Doing hard work through strong hashtags

Prior to the 2016 election, Twitter launched a campaign with visual hashtags, or hashtags superimposed on images. These initially signaled Twitter as the place to debate the candidates leading up to the election. But they transitioned into a more direct conversation on the issues surrounding the election, from the Black Lives Matter movement to gay rights.

While some use hashtags as a way to make pithy statements on current events or pop culture, Twitter’s work was intentional. “The less you say, the more you convey,” said Jayanta Jenkins, Twitter’s global group creative director. “We started with the candidates. It was a really nice way to kick off this work, which is now about the issues. If you think about the news cycle that’s been happening around the election, it’s all been about the personalities. It’s been Clinton this, or Trump that. A little bit of what’s been taken from us is just the conversation around the issues that we’re actually voting for.”

Twitter talked back to the political powers that be, reclaiming the election conversation that was most central to voters’ concerns. Activists have done the same with issues, fueling media coverage and helping them control the narrative—or at least counter the narrative provided by those who benefit from the status quo. From #OccupyWallStreet to #BlackLivesMatter, activism via hashtag has become a quick way for people with a common interest to band together nationally.

Even the elite haven’t been isolated

This move to right social wrongs hasn’t avoided those in ivory towers, hitting the entertainment industry hard: In an arena where a celebrity’s or studio’s brand is crucial to selling tickets and gaining investments, movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp have been damaging.

Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and others have undergone intense scrutiny and received dozens of lawsuits regarding alleged sexual misconduct, with Kiss’ Gene Simmons saying, “The collateral damage is heinous because anybody can say anything and there’s no presumption of innocence. That’s the problem.”

But activists say it’s worth it: After two years of all-white nominees at the Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to double its number of women and minority members by 2020, vowing to become more inclusive.

The academy’s former president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, acknowledged that the public attention spurred by #OscarsSoWhite had pushed the group to make the change. And Time’s Up’s legal fund has raised $21 million in the wake of the publicity the movement has garnered, which is allowing it to provide legal help to women in more than 60 industries.

The path hashtags must take

It’s important to recognize that hashtags aren’t just the territory of brands any longer; they’re also the means for having conversations that receive lip service, but no action, when they take place in a venue that isn’t public. Virality is no longer something only cute cat videos and in-your-face personal statements seek.

The danger is that overuse will dilute hashtags’ influence. David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “As a reporter, I don’t sign up for various causes, but as someone who lives—far too much—in the world of social media, I can feel the pull of digital activism. And I have to admit I’m starting to experience a kind of ‘favoriting’ fatigue, meaning that the digital causes of the day or week are all starting to blend together. Another week, another hashtag and, with it, a question about what is actually being accomplished.”

We’ve learned how to harness social media to portray a specific image of ourselves and our brands; we have to learn how to utilize social media so that it fuels, rather than stifles, the very causes we hope to draw attention to.

A Princeton University study found that polarizing messages often limit the amount of persuasion achieved, which makes coherent and nuanced messages more important than ever.

“We are protesting so much that it’s oversaturated. On social media, we tend to react and attack,” said Janet Johnson, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Thus, brands, celebrities and activists seeking to highlight an issue or cause would do well to do what marketers have always done: Create a strategy focused on the most desirable outcome. Doing so will eliminate knee-jerk reactions and result in proactive, thought-out conversations that have a stronger possibility of conversion or change than shame alone can enact.

Hashtag activism is alive and well, and we’ve dismissed hashtags’ reach for far too long. Hashtags are no longer just a method of conveying a specific message and image; they’re also a method of receiving messages and absorbing feedback. Brands and advertisers that ignore this reality will find out that hashtags are far more powerful than they ever imagined.

@MaryCLong maryclong@digitalmediaghost.com Mary C. Long is Chief Ghost at Digital Media Ghost. She writes about everything online and is published widely, with a focus on privacy concerns, specifically social sabotage.