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May 9, 2014

Is hashtag activism better than doing nothing? Or about the same?

(Continued)

"Black Twitter watchers know the power of the swarm," wrote Buzzfeed's Shani Hilton. "That obsessive and focused online conversation has gone from being a source of entertainment — and outside curiosity — to a cultural force in its own right."

#NotYourAsianSidekick

That's one of the profound benefits of hashtag activism: 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. ("The Hashtag Is Mightier than the Sword," proclaimed an article in Ms.) It also explains why Suey Park, perhaps Twitter's foremost hashtag activist of late, has become such a polarizing figure.

Perhaps you haven't heard of Park, but you've surely seen her "movements." In December, the 20-something activist and freelance writer launched the tag #NotYourAsianSidekick to prompt discussion of Asian-American feminism and media representation. Three months later, after an account affiliated with Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" tweeted a contextless (and apparently racist) joke about Asians, Park lit up Twitter with the hashtag #CancelColbert.

#NotYourAsianSidekick and #CancelColbert were fundamentally different, despite sharing a founder and central theme. #NotYourAsianSidekick was about having a conversation — not terribly different from #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, or even the common Twitter chats of yore. But #CancelColbert appeared to target a specific, actionable policy, like #standwithPP before it. And lots of Colbert fans — pointing out, rightly, that the joke had actually been a critique of racism — did not take that suggestion well.

Park has since clarified that she just wanted to start a conversation about racism and racial humor — something she clearly accomplished, if not in the way she may have hoped. The hashtag has been tweeted 125,000 times. The campaign has frequently been condemned as silly or ill-conceived.

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