When Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon did a skit speaking only in hashtags, it became clear that the use of the hashtag had reached a unique place in our culture. Their skit, while satirical, also made it clear that hashtags have unique power in not only describing trends, but also in raising awareness around important issues.

The hashtag (#), which was first introduced in 2007, did not take long to become a mainstay in the Twitter world. The idea first originated with Chris Messina, who wondered if it would be useful to have a way for friends to organize their messages into meaningful groups.

Not long after, it became the leading way to describe emotions, world events, trends, activities and ideas through social media. And over time, as its presence has grown, so has the flexibility with which it is employed.

From the first true global usage in 2009, in the wake of the Iranian elections and the Occupy movements, to the more recent use in #BringBackOurGirls and #YesAllWomen, hashtag advocacy has emerged and has played a role in promoting awareness and giving people a chance to weigh in on larger conversations.

The largest use of hashtag advocacy began when Invisible Children raised awareness for the Kony 2012 Campaign – harnessing the power of social media to spread their message. The campaign quickly gained 2.4 million tweets with the “#Kony2012” tag in March alone of that year.

While the merits and ultimate effectiveness of the Kony campaign are debated and criticized, it is worth noting that the campaign led to a level of awareness about an issue not yet seen before. In fact, because of #Kony2012, the African Union sent a force of 5,000 – including 100 U.S. military advisors – to help end the surge of violence in Uganda at the time.

From the start, critics decried the use of the hashtag as “slacktivism,” the idea that by spreading a message, people could nominally support a cause without actually having to do any leg-work. Others have argued that using a hashtag to raise awareness is about as effective as writing a letter to Congress – which is to say, it isn’t.

However, employing a hashtag or writing to Congress does draw attention to important issues. Elected officials react to public opinion, and when the public is writing in about a topic frequently, they rightly determine that it is an issue that people care about.

As one of the newest forms of grassroots activism, hashtags have the ability to play an important role in advocacy, generating media coverage at no extra cost. While it is important to not overstate the importance of translating the hashtag usage into action, raising awareness about an issue is a useful way of spreading a message and employing the kind of diplomacy that often makes leaders think twice when they are making decisions – what affect the issue will have on their reputation.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has received its fair share of critics, but it has also brought the issue to the forefront of global discussion and has pressured the Nigerian government to act and accept assistance from other nations.

Just as the #YesAllWomen tag reached 1.2 million tweets in the span of four days, so can other tags be employed to raise issue awareness about development projects or the millennium development goals in fighting global poverty because ultimately, the more people who are able to be a part of the discussion, the greater the chance is that someone new will be moved to donate, to act, to volunteer or to dedicate themselves to the cause.

– Andrea Blinkhorn

Sources: Washington Post, Hashtags.org, The Guardian, Mashable
Photo: New Artist Model