Oftentimes, the use of hashtags in multiple social media platforms is associated with an attitude. People want to appear bold and be assertive, so they used hashtags. People want to show their support to a particular issue, so they used hashtags. We transform hashtag not only as a code to show numerical sequence but also a symbol of social expression.
As far as I remember, the first social media platform that allows its user to use hashtags in their post was Twitter. Established back in 2006, a micro blog social network called Twitter allows its user to post anything in the length of 140 characters. Users can also post a topic together by using hashtags. Such system gave birth to the rising number of topic categorization worldwide, ranging from #followback so that users could get more followers; #tbt that refers to ‘Throwback Thursday’, a tradition when Twitter users post their old photos; to a more politically related topics such as #ISIS and #JeSuisCharlie.
My first experience with the political use of hashtags came in around 2011 when the Arab Spring occurred. If I’m not mistaken, one of the earliest hashtags in those periods was #libya. It refers to the anti-government protest in Libya back in February 2011. The people were controlling Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, in only three days after the protest broke out. Such action was then followed by people in surrounding countries such as Egypt and Syria. But, aside from the political unrest in Middle East, here I want to emphasize the very fundamental function of hashtag itself.
First of all, it is important to define the motivations that derive people in using hashtags in social media. People are not only using social media as an instrument to fulfil their freedom of expression, but also as an instrument of resistance. The question is, subsequently, what is being fought?
One could easily argue that the resistance was established to confront horizontal conflicts, particularly the popular demand. I do believe that social media users are living in such a pretentious society: that they are ‘required’ to post something that meet the social standards. People post about their holiday, they show off their hipster readings, or they even post about something which is actually does not have a significance at all such as ‘I’m sleeping/waking up’ feature on a platform called Path. Social media becomes the place for humble braggers that are not even humble. People post something merely in order to make others jealous.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the existence of social media is only to satisfy people’s desire to show off. Social media does not produce a feature through popular demand. Facebook did not create photo sharing by asking the people what they need in a social media; and so does Twitter. Twitter did not ask the people, they created the features first so that people comply with such system. From such procedure, I could safely say that it was not a bottom-up process; rather it was a top-down. From such process, we could use it as an analogy to take a look at a higher level of analysis. A bigger picture that includes the role of the states.
I am a firm believer that in a capitalist system – whether if it is a state-led capitalism or market-driven one – one of the most important actor is the state. Assuming such initiation and aligned with the top-down process I mentioned earlier, state’s main interests is, therefore, trying their best to expand their sphere of influence and transfix it to the tiniest level of the society: that is the individuals. Therefore, state intervenes every possible aspect; creating a new form of relations between the governs and the governed. Furthermore, state’s intervention will lead to the monopoly of the means of production, the emergence of new institutions that support the government’s interests, as well as state’s liberty to control public discourse.
The perpetual routine of the enlargement of the state’s influence will then produce a reaction from the people. The people will accumulate a sense of discontent as they are – adopting Marx’s terminology – being alienated. As the director of their action, the people could not independently determine their behaviour; they could not define their very existence in regard with other people’s existence, as well as they could not enjoy the products they made. In brief, the people question their own identity.
Upon the people’s realization of such alienation, the idea and the attitude of resistance start to sprout. The idea of freedom, liberty, and self-determination creep in and finally undergo an intersubjective process. The idea that was originally adopted by an individual or small group of people transforms into a public discourse. Through continuous discussions and debates, the idea takes across a series of dialectical method in order to polish itself.
The intersubjective process was also supported by material capabilities. In this context, one material component that has proven itself to be effective, accessible, and influential was technology. Through internet connection worldwide, people found it easier for them to exchange ideas and concern. Once the people came up with the idea, they need to socialize it so that more people will share a similar sense of urgency in facing a particular issue. They pick their devices, log in to their Twitter account, create a topic by using hashtags, and invite people to see the world through their eyes.
It is only then through Twitter, hashtags as a political symbol becomes relevant. First of all, I observe that in order to socialize an idea, people need to keep the idea appealing. To achieve such interesting value, they have to make it clear and concise – as Twitter, especially, only allows its user to use 140 characters in each tweet. In doing so, people need a symbol – which ‘coincidentally’ has provided by Twitter through hashtags. Hashtags therefore embody a particular emotion that gives an event a particular meaning. Regardless of whether it is presenting the whole phenomena as a holistic fact or it only shows a particular affair, hashtags have the ability to shape people’s mind-set. Before hashtags even existed, we use caps lock to express a similar expression. We type things in capital letters so that our counterparts share a similar sense of urgency with us. But now, not only we use caps lock, we could also use hashtags to express our emotion. There is one perfect example of such case recently.
On the night of 5 February 2015, on Twitter, there were plenty of people who use #QuestionForMen as a topic for discussion. They basically ask questions that were addressed for men about sexism. If we take a look at those questions, there has to be some message that the questioner wants us to perceive. Of the many messages contained inside those tweets, two emotions that could obviously be seen were the fact that the tweets are critical and satirical. Those tweets are critical because it takes feminist point of view to go up against the many cases of sexism. They were about feminist taking a stand to oppose a highly masculinized socio-political system implemented by the state. For example, the question from Heather McChesney (@ImTheChez) that said:
“#QuestionForMen Are you comfy with the federal government & Christian conservatives holding decision making parties in your “boy” parts?”
Another emotion that could easily be perceived was satirical. Many of these tweets were packaged to indirectly mortify the state. Most of them were in fact addressed directly to men. But, despite the implicit nature of those tweets, the message is still the same: there are groups of people that oppose the highly oppressive system manifested by the state. One of my favourite has to be Chelsea Ayling’s (@chelseaayling) tweet:
“Do you get told ‘you’ll change your mind eventually’ when you say you don’t want to have children? #QuestionforMen”.
After looking at those two examples on how hashtags could be seen as a political symbol in cyberspace, I just want to re-emphasize that such meaning can only be born through the interconnection between ideas and material power. The idea of resistance is an outcome of such oppressive capitalist system. Through the realization of such subjugation, the people will use any of their capabilities to stand up against it, and one material they could easily nowadays is social media.
 See Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Gramsci and Marxist Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979, page 3-10.
 See Karl Marx, ‘Preface’, in A Contribution of the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, in marxist.org, viewed 5 February 2015, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm.
 See Robert Cox, Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory, Millenium: Journal of International Studies, 10:2, 1981, page 136.
 All tweets used for example in this article could be seen from Alanna Vagianos, 16 Questions For Men That Reveal The Casual Sexism Women Experience Every Day, 2015, in Huffington Post, viewed 5 February 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/04/questions-for-men-everyday-sexism-twitter_n_6612862.html