On my radar: Activism meets capitalism

2014-08-22 06:45

Hashtag activism has become a new form of armchair protest and mobilisation, but companies are also taking advantage of the medium

If you’re a regular social-media user, the hashtag has become part and parcel of your online language. For the uninitiated, hashtags enable people to search for a topic of interest, or follow a breaking news story on social-media platforms.

A word or short phrase (without spaces) is prefixed with the hash sign and posted in a tweet or photo upload. Once enough people use the same hashtag, all content and conversations relating to the topic are conveniently grouped, which allows the user

to follow other people’s postings or messages relating to that topic.

For example, during the Oscar Pistorius trial, the following hashtags were used: #OscarPistorius or #OscarTrial. By simply clicking on either of these hashtags or searching for them, the hashtag would lead the user directly to all the conversations relating to the trial.

The use of hashtags in social media started in 2007 and quickly gained popularity. But the real turning point was in 2009 when Twitter began to hyperlink all hashtags people had posted in their tweets to Twitter search results. This enabled users to find and then go directly to a conversation or topic.

This led to the now common concept of “trending topics”, which are measured by hashtags being used the most on the Twitter platform.

Since then, the role of hashtags has evolved even further. Because its core function is to direct people to a common conversation, it was inevitable that hashtags would be used to mobilise people for sociopolitical causes.

The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 was a perfect example. Battered by a prolonged recession, residents of New York City (mostly young millennials) began protesting against the greed and corruption in the financial services sector and the influence large corporations had with government.

#occupywallstreet became not only the rallying hashtag for the protesters, but the conduit of information for the somewhat disjointed crowds who wanted to take part in the protests.

The most recent, and possibly now the most well- known, hashtag campaign is #bringbackourgirls, which started in response to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by militant movement Boko Haram in Nigeria earlier this year.

Ironically, Boko Haram responded with its own hashtag – #bringbackourboys – a reference to detained members whose freedom they were fighting for, and the reason they kidnapped the schoolgirls.

So while “hashtag activism” has become a new form of armchair protest and mobilisation, the commercialisation of social media appears to be the next wave.

Now you can shop using Twitter and hashtags. The concept of social-media commerce is in its embryonic stages but is no doubt going to grow and evolve faster than you can type 140 characters.

Amazon, the online retail behemoth, has just introduced a new service that provides a glimpse of where social media commerce is going.

If you have an Amazon account (and in the future most people on the planet are bound to have one) and also follow its Twitter feed, you will receive tweeted notifications of new products being launched.

Should you be interested in a product, but are unsure of committing to the purchase or simply too busy to log into your account, you simply retweet that particular tweet and add the “#amazoncart” hashtag.

Amazon immediately places that product into your shopping cart, which you can then revisit at your convenience, and confirm or delete the item from your cart. It is an ingenious way of getting people to shop, not only impulsively but while on the run.

Another forward-thinking company also dabbling in social-media commerce is Starbucks. Its concept does not involve the use of hashtags, but uses Twitter as a vehicle to sell its products.

Last year, it introduced its “tweet a coffee” service, which is as ingenious as Amazon’s #amazoncart concept. If you are signed up to Starbucks’ prepayment scheme (more than 3?million people already have these accounts, which operate much like a debit card), you are able to buy a coffee for a friend just by using Twitter.

All you do is send a “tweet a coffee” message with your friend’s Twitter handle in the message, and he or she can claim their coffee at any Starbucks outlet anywhere in the world by simply showing the staff at Starbucks your tweet.

The cost of that coffee is then debited from your account.

These commercial applications for social media are still few and far between, but signal an important shift in how social media is going to be used in the not-too-distant future.

Twitter, in particular, has become both an effective social-media platform for breaking news, but unfortunately, also a cyberspace refuge for Twitter trolls who just want to vent or spew venom.

Adding a shopping function to social media might just restore the more pleasant “social” aspect to these platforms.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit www.fluxtrends.com

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