Centre for Internet & Society

It is easy to hijack hashtags by coupling them with others. It is equally easy to make hashtags die.

The article was published in Indian Express on October 28, 2018.

Information overload is our new default. We don’t just slip into a condition of overload, we live in it on a daily basis. Every minute, surrounded by digital devices that buzz, beep, chirp, blink and notify us about the various information streams that shape us, we experience a sensory overload that is unprecedented. One of the reasons for this information overload is that digital networks work on traffic. Traffic — the data that travels in bits, bytes, and packets, over the network edges of our computation systems — is the lifeline of a network. A network without traffic is dead. The network exists to circulate information and transfer information. Take that away and the network is just a whole lot of dead hardware.

So, if a computational network is our default mode of existence, then we will have to accept that these networks will continue to incessantly circulate traffic and keep the edges that connect us as nodes, busy, with a continued information stream. This is why our machines are in a state of continued update, and this is why we expect to receive and share new information in all states.

This state of information overload has led to some alarming signals about human relationship with information: We find our attention now shallow, because even before we have processed the first stream of information, something else comes and dislocates that information. Information intensity is replaced by information scale, so we are no longer invested in a deep engagement with the information that comes to us. For information to keep our attention longer than the click, we need information to be repeated, consolidated, and updated over and over again, so that we can keep focusing on the same topic, but on multiple screens and interfaces.

The hashtag is a great example of this. Even though a hashtag excites us, inspires us, and motivates us to engage with an information stream, hashtags immediately dislocate us to other hashtags and other tangents. It is easy to hijack hashtags by coupling them with others. It is equally easy to make hashtags die by infusing them with misinformation which makes the user disengage from the stream. Hashtags can make things go viral, by being shared, and they can hold attention only if they are fed by multiple and many voices that keep them alive.

While viral hashtags have public attention and hold, they also lead to a different phenomenon — what I call #hashtag fatigue. We get bored of the hashtag, because the same few ones show up so many times, that even when they have new material, we presume that we already know what accompanies them. We also get tired of the hashtags, because they fill up almost all our attention span. We get desensitised, often ignoring the individual and collective experiences they consolidate. We learn to ignore hashtags, because as more people share it, the more it seems to be everyday, losing easily to other information sets that are screaming for eyeballs.

We see this in the way #MeToo is developing in India. As more women come out, naming their abusers and enablers, we see a hashtag fatigue stepping in. We already see people raising an emoji eyebrow and rolling their digital eyes while there are abusers who are maintaining silence hoping that this will phase out soon. There are people who have started making jokes about how everything is now #MeToo, and this also feeds into the patriarchal powers who are using this moment to paint themselves as victims of vindictive women, dismissing their collective and individual trauma. We see many survivors getting overwhelmed by the scale of voices trickling in, feeling deafened by the continuous traffic that surrounds the hashtag, but also creating an isolated island where nothing else trickles in. We see news media already finding either new angles or other controversies, because in the lifeline of the news cycle, this is already old news.

In order for #MeToo to remain a sustainable social justice movement and a long-standing solidarity, we will have to find other ways of engaging with this movement. While the digital offers the first platform and catalysis, we will have to find other spaces for the movement and its ambitions to survive. It is time for us to simultaneously find forms that will capture the urgency but move beyond the viral fatigue of the #hashtag.

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