#AllLivesMatter: The Lives of a Hashtag

Two features appear to characterize Tweets: the 140-character composition and the use of hashtags. Hashtags allow users a range of possibilities: expressing tone and emotion, connecting to like-minded individuals, participating in larger conversations. Their popularity has transcended Twitter, and we now see them employed on other social media platforms, in advertisements, and even in everyday parlance.

An image of a billboard with British runner Mo Farah staring intensely into the camera. In what appears to be his handwriting, he writes,
A billboard featuring Nike advertisement with runner Mo Farah and the #MakeItCount hashtag.                               Image from New Billboard Day.

The increasing popularity of hashtags raise important questions regarding power. Who originated a particular hashtag? How is it used? What does it do? As political groups and corporations employ hashtags, we must interrogate the strengths and weaknesses of hashtags as mechanisms for connecting individuals.

Perhaps one of the most successful hashtags to date has been #BlackLivesMatter. It originated in 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. Today, it serves as a rallying cry to address police brutality, hate crimes, and structural racism. The heated political nature of #BlackLivesMatter has led to a conservative backlash and a new hashtag, #AllLivesMatter.

The graphic shows 1950s style illustrations in which characters suggest kids, soldiers, and black lives mater. The final response:
An #AllLivesMatter response to the Black Lives Matter.                           CruzMissile!! (Cruz__Missile). “#LivesMatter hopemonet: #alllivesmatter is one of the most ridiculous things. #BLM.” 12 Sept. 2015, 9:18 p.m. Tweet.

A cursory glance at how #AllLivesMatters travels shows the vitality of hashtags. It also reveals the slipperiness behind the concision of Twitter. For some, #AllLivesMatter serves as a flawed universalism that seeks to unite all under a comforting but illusory postracialism. For others, it’s a sarcastic rebuttal to the perceived arrogance of #BlackLivesMatter. This tension gestures toward the limits of Twitter as a space for social media activism, but also to the complexity of contemporary conservatism in the United States.

My research this semester seeks to trace the possibilities and pitfalls of hashtags through a close examination of #AllLivesMatter. While a good deal of research examines Black Twitter and social media activism, less attention has been paid to the responses to these traditionally progressive efforts. By focusing on #AllLivesMatter, I hope to look more closely at the resistance activism finds online, but also at the logic, interests, and mediated efforts propelling such counter-narratives.

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