Consider the trending hashtag #YesAllWomen, created just after Memorial Day Weekend, when details began emerging that Isla Vista mass-shooter Elliot Rodger was driven by sexual hatred and misogyny to take the lives of six people in Santa Barbara. First to Twitter was the hashtag conversation, #NotAllMen, started by some to convey that not all men feel similar anger and resentment towards women. Then, #YesAllWomen emerged as a counter-narrative, asserting that while not all men are predators, most women are culturally conditioned to fear male violence. When that conversation began to trend internationally, amassing more than 2.5 million participants at its peak, some feminist activists were inspired to create the Tumblr, "When Women Refuse." Its intent, says co-creator Deanna Zandt, is to collect news stories from around the world about violence committed against women who refuse male advances. "I'm hoping to use this site as a tapestry that we can weave together to demonstrate what's happening in our culture, (to show) that these are not isolated incidents," Zandt says.
In an NPR interview that aired today, Zandt—a media technologist and author of "Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking"—talked with On The Media Host Brooke Gladstone about the power of Twitter and other forms of social media to amplify issues. "Hashtags are digital consciousness-raising," Zandt said. "...These conversations are a mirror of what's actually happening in our culture, when we have free and open spaces in which to have these conversations. ...The power of digital tools to shift the cultural consciousness is incredible at this moment, if we use these tools wisely."
The #YesAllWomen outcry on Twitter underscores the growing power of loosely organized feminist networks that are gaining influence across social media platforms.
ZANDT: A hashtag is not required but it is often super useful, often in the same way that "Yes We Can" and "Si se puede" became rallying cries for a movement. Hashtags are doing the same thing in the digital space. And what I see is that this is happening whenever we have these extremely emotional moments that are very traumatic for a lot of people. Most people, before they come to a conversation, they feel isolated. They feel like they're the only ones that this happened to. So when they start sharing their stories with one another, they realize, 'I'm not crazy for feeling this way. I'm not crazy for feeling scared in this situation.' It's very much like digital consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising of the second wave of feminism was such a huge part of the movement, and connecting women together and people together to share their stories of systemic problems and make systemic change.
NPR: Someday, this hashtag #YesAllWomen will stop trending. And so what happens then?
ZANDT: There's a lot of discussion right now around the lifespan and the lifecycle of a hashtag. I find them very useful as in-the-moment tools. These hashtags will live on until someone deletes them. They will become an archive and a reference point, a point for journalists to dig into stories, as other related stories come up. It doesn't have to be a platform at any given moment.
ZANDT: I don't actually think that it has to take decades. You know, we look at something like street harassment. Emily May started HollaBack!, to stop street harassment, 10 years ago. And many people said, what? Cat-calling? Why is that dangerous? Why is that bad? And some people still, obviously, say that. But the headway that they've been able to make as a movement around the world has been incredible for people to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute. No. That does feel bad and dangerous when that happens to me on the street.' And that's only been less than a decade. So again, the power of digital tools to really shift a cultural consciousness is incredible at this moment—if we use the tools wisely.
NPR: What's the biggest impediment?
ZANDT: Apathy. People feeling apathetic because they've never felt like they've been able to move a needle before. And I think these are some of the differences that we're seeing when people are contributing to these social media moments. This is, often times, their first experience with contributing to some sort of social change. And they see what happens when it goes from their Twitter stream to their local news station or to a mainstream cable news station, or something on the radio."
(PHOTO, top: A selfie of the participants in an April 28th panel talk about networked feminism, a part of NYU's #WOMENIMPACT conference organized by CauseGlobal. Panelists included, from left to right: Jamil Smith, a producer of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on msnbc; Penny Abeywardena, head of women and girls issues at the Clinton Global Initiative; Tom Watson, a Forbes contributor and co-faculty at NYU; Deanna Zandt, and author Allison Fine in the foreground.)