Attention is finite. There are a limited number of minutes and a limited number of people – not to mention the limited amount of capital, social and monetary, as fundraisers, nonprofit leaders, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs learn in the crib.
So breakthrough moments that reach many millions for a cause are fairly rare, really by definition. Over the last week or so, we’ve seen another networked-powered attention blast that touches the heart-strings, demands action, and provides an easy – tweet able – moment for those who feel otherwise powerless to do anything about it. The mass kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls by the anti-west terror group Boko Haram spurred worldwide outrage – and quite frankly, attention – due to media coverage and a grassroots social media campaign using the now ubiquitous #bringbackourgirls hashtag on Twitter and other platforms.
As with other big social media moments in the last few years – from the street revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to the highly-coordinated Kony2012 campaign to the grassroots outrage of the Planned Parenthood-Susan G. Komen Foundation dispute – the very ubiquity of the cause on social channels has become the de rigeur sidebar to the main story of terror and missing girls. As usual, there seems to be two clear and opposing positions:
1. Hashtag activism is a weak stand-in for real engagement in a complex and often violent world.
2. Hashtag activism is indeed slight, but can be powerful – and force large institutions to take action.
And as usual, both “sides” are obviously right. Yes, our reaction to the missing girls is sentimental, thin, and resides in the moment. We like, we retweet, we share an image and feel we’re part of a movement to save them. Quite frankly, it’s a safe, developed world kind of reaction – nearly half of the almost two million hashtag tweets of #bringbackourgirls originated in the United States. As the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole tweeted last week:
twitter-tweet” lang=”en”>Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.
— Teju Cole (@tejucole) May 8, 2014
And there was the slightly more acerbic Twitter comment of Sudanese-born writer and commentator Nesrine Malik.
Yet who can deny that millions now have some passing knowledge of Nigeria’s struggles, of the danger faced by those threatened by Boko Haram, of the group’s atrocities, and of the continuing struggle of girls and women to learn and live equal lives in societies under siege by misogynist teachings?
“That’s one of the profound benefits of hashtag activism,” wrote digital media analyst Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post. “The amplification of minority voices that other forms of media — or even other forms of activism — have historically ignored. That helps explain why feminist groups, for instance, have been so eager to jump on the hashtag train.”
And she’s right. The flip side of too-easy hacktivism is some growth in both knowledge and common cause. The social networks we all inhabit do – at least to some degree – level the playing field, and allow (for example) organizers in Nigeria to draw attention to a horrific story, get millions to share that story, and governments to (at least begin) to act on it. This actually happened with #bringbackourgirls, though of course most of us don’t understand the complexity of the political and cultural situation in Nigeria – and won’t take the time to learn much more.
Yet there are lessons in the still-young story of this latest hashtag episode, some common threads I see that are worth quickly noting now, even mid-story.
1. Feminist roots
To my ear, global causes that involve the fate of young women are particularly viral in today’s networked world. Why? Because feminist networks are among the strongest, the most resilient, and the most focused online. They’re also the most angry and quick to act. Social media has become one of the great levelers in terms of attention and action for causes, organizing, activism and movements for and by women. It’s one of the big stories of our time. Clearly, #bringbackourgirls is part of that.
2. Simplicity, both good and bad
Let’s face it: #bringbackourgirls is also a very simple and direct message. Lives are threatened, girls are abducted, they must be brought back. Simple, clear, easy to understand in seconds or less. Easy to scrawl on a card to be held up by the First Lady of the United States. Every cause needs a call to action, and this one is simplicity itself – too bad the situation in Nigeria is not.
3. Platform friendly
Twitter is the leading platform for movements and organizers, while Facebook is the largest network – and the biggest amplifier on stage. Think of it this way: Twitter and a viral hashtag are the Fender Telecaster. Facebook is the stack of Marshall amps behind the guitarist. They work together. In my view, a Twitter tag doesn’t get as wide as a Facebook moment – the numbers aren’t there, and the depth of experience on Twitter is quick, more slight. The greatest virility out there occurs when these platforms work together. I saw #bringbackourgirls first on Twitter. But it jumped to my Facebook feed in less than a day, shared by friends and colleagues who aren’t on Twitter.
4. Images propelled sharing
And that brings me to my fourth point – it’s not just the hashtag. In my view #bringbackourgirls went viral at least in part because of the images associated with it – people you know or recognize holding the words of the hashtag on pieces of paper seem to have more social relevance than just the words themselves. Thus, there are thousands of photos like this one on the march on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and the rest:
So #bringbackourgirls is another moment in hashtag activism, and an important one. Yet I couldn’t help but be struck by the profound gap in those clicks and shares and the lives they actually relate to.
Teju Cole’s essay in the New Yorker last week captured that chasm well – and gave reason for thought and consideration and common cause beyond the next retweet, when he asked rhetorically what the kidnapped girls themselves were thinking:
They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.
They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.
*Culled from Forbes