Since working on Twitter Vote Report, I’ve been thinking about how to use Twitter effectively for social and political activism. My conversations with Jon Pincus about #topprog, #digg and the use of hashtags for action have inspired me to discuss it a bit further. And when we talk about promoting any kind of group behavior on Twitter, a discussion of the hashtag and it’s use is a necessity. For a good introduction, read Wild Apricot’s “An Introduction to Twitter Hashtags.” Amy Gahran’s “How to Start a Twitter Hashtag” covers all the necessary steps to take when creating a hashtag on Twitter. For my purposes, creating a Twitter hashtag that promotes action, Gahran’s focus on intuition, emotion, and usability is key: “My strategy has been to devise a short, memorable character string that intuitively evokes the event name and the year or other time reference — and that, ideally, can be easily used as a word in a sentence.” #topprog doesn’t really meet these requirements in my opinion, but progressive activists are determined to make it a success (including me now that it’s been designated), so it still might be.
Let me clarify the difference between adoption and action. For me, adoption of a hashtag happens when people on Twitter begin to use the tag actively, but adoption does not equal action. Action happens when people do something inspired by use of the hashtag. In the case of #votereport, people used the tag actively, but they also performed a specific action in addition to using the hashtag–they reported their vote by adding additional information in a specific format to their tweet. Granted, the hurdle to performing a specific action within Twitter is much lower than asking people to take a specific action outside of Twitter, is lower. But in most cases, taking action outside of Twitter is what will constitute action.
The creation and use of the #taxcuts hashtag on February 5th was completely spontaneous and completely successful in use, understanding, and adoption, but NOT action. However, it could have been if I had been better prepared. After reading an exchange of three humorous tweets about the exaggerated powers of tax cuts, I looked at my co-worker and said: “That’s a hashtag.” And that was that. I enlisted the help of a few other influential Twitterers, encouraged creativity, and #taxcuts took off.
But where #taxcuts stalled was in turning adoption into action. For instance, I found out too late that SEIU set up a click-to-call feature that would have been easy to send people hashtag adapters to for action. If I was a full-time activists I could have taken #taxcuts to the next step. And that’s an important note. I can start a hashtag and use my influential followers to help me spread it throughout Twitter in a few hours, but without at least one full-time activist working to keep the momentum going, action becomes more difficult to inspire.