The death of “hashtag activism”

I’ve had a few discussions with my journalism colleagues about whether hashtags do any good (aside from letting people join a specific discussion) or whether trending topics mean anything.

As evidence, I can always point to anything that’s trending at a given moment and show how much of it is trivial. Go on Twitter at 5 a.m., and your trending topics will be whatever a small band of drunk West Coast insomniacs is discussing.

It’s that easy. As of now:

  • #DescribeYourCrushIn3Words
  • #HowOldAreYou
  • #daresampepper
  • #DeseanJackson (an actual news story)
  • Dave Rice (a basketball coach I didn’t know until today)
  • Watching Selena
  • Riley Cooper (related to Jackson)
  • MJD (football transaction)

And, of course, #CancelColbert, which Slate’s Dave Weigel explains quite well — a Colbert Report Twitter feed tweeted part of a long-running Colbert theme that he brought out to ridicule Dan Snyder over the name “Redskins.” Out of context, that tweet could be interpreted badly. And that’s what “hashtag activist” Suey Park did.

Park is thrilled that her topic is still trending, even though it’s painfully obvious the bulk of the people using it are making fun of her. Of the top 15 tweets at this moment, one tweet is picking up her message (Colbert evil because someone tweeted part of his bit out of context), one is a news report saying it’s trending, and 13 are laughing or shaking their head at liberal outrage overkill — some of whom rejoicing with glee as “liberals” (in this case, those who aren’t racist and care somewhat about other people) feed on their own.

I’m usually able to defend “political correctness” as harmless. When someone describes himself as “politically incorrect,” it sends up a red flag, and it’s usually right. In college, I wrote a column making fun of the “anti-PC” crowd, saying I’d never seen anyone attacked by a recycling bin.

But as someone who loves satire, I have to say this: We lose a valuable conversation tool when satirists aren’t able to adopt the characters that are their targets. Mel Brooks surely couldn’t make a film like Blazing Saddles today, no matter how much Richard Pryor was on board and no matter how obviously the joke was on the racists.

And does anyone think we’ll make social progress by ridding the airwaves of Stephen Colbert? Him? Ahead of the people who actually hold the beliefs he’s ridiculing?

I don’t even think Park believes that. I don’t think she’s thinking beyond these 15 minutes of fame and the consequent days of infamy.

And I think Stephen Colbert will emerge from this controversy just fine. “Hashtag activism,” on the other hand, will take another giant step toward irrelevance.

Update: Jezebel has posted the definitive response, explaining:

  1. The original joke
  2. Why the joke didn’t work as well when someone who isn’t Colbert or most likely even someone close to Colbert tried to distill part of the joke to 140 characters
  3. Why some Colbert fans (and, I’d add, a whole lot of random hate-mongers) didn’t do themselves any favors by telling Park and company to go off and die or something worse.
  4. Why the network that still employs Daniel “My Heckler Should Be Raped” Tosh isn’t going to fire Colbert.
  5. Why “racing to be the first and the angriest before you have all (or even some) of the facts can end up biting you in the ass.”
  6. Why Colbert is valuable in the actual fight against racism, sexism, warmongering and other things we left-of-insanity types are supposed to be fighting.
  7. Why Michelle Malkin’s endorsement should be proof that you’re doing something wrong.
  8. Why this controversy is distracting attention from the very issue Colbert was attempting to satirize.

The clincher: “But instead of talking about that, we’re talking about an out of context Tweet that people misattributed to a sketch that most people didn’t even watch in its entirety before they decided an entire show’s worth of people — writers, producers, editors, directors, camera operators, sound people, interns — should lose their jobs.”



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