Keynote: “Hashtag Feminism and Its Discontents”
Presenter: Elizabeth Losh
Review by Brandy Dieterle
Dr. Elizabeth Losh was the keynote speaker on Friday. Her talk, titled “Hashtag Feminism and Its Discontents,” considered how a short string of words in the form of a hashtag can hold such power and value. While critics say they aren’t of much value at all, Losh argued they do in fact have value as they allow people to talk to people and machines to talk to machines. In essence, hashtags are metadata, and we need to be paying attention to them.
Losh began her talk by explaining the history of hashtags. She pointed to early uses of hashtags being tied to identity and uses geek culture as an example of this, specifically Star Trek and Internet Relay Chats (IRCs). She also talked about early users of Twitter and the important role they played in changing the way people network and connect online. In doing so, Losh brought up a woman (@crystal) who was an early Twitter user and defies the myth of the white male tech founders. She was one of the most prolific people on Twitter in the early days. For younger scholars, this history was quite informative and useful for contextualizing hashtags. Additionally, older scholars could be seen nodding along and Tweeting their affirmations as they were reminded of the early days of the Internet.
The latter portion of Losh’s talk focused on more of her current research on hashtags, particularly hashtag activism and feminism. Before I proceed, I want to add a content warning as this portion of the talk went into great detail about sexual assault, which will be discussed generally here. This portion of the talk focused so much on assault that several people got up and left the room as they were caught unaware of the content of the talk because there wasn’t a content warning and the description of her talk didn’t give any such indication. Additionally, many people spoke out on Twitter using the hashtag #cwcon and, after the talk, Losh apologized on Twitter for not having included a content warning.
Losh’s talk included discussion of a hashtag movement in India, #meettosleep, that focused on women reclaiming public spaces by sleeping in them. Losh considered the ethics of hashtag feminism as, when dealing with sexual assault, it can “out” the survivors or victims and brings up issues surrounding privacy. Hashtags are powerful and memorable when they include proper nouns, such as a survivor’s or victim’s name, and also when they are just a few words in length. However, Losh argued scholars need to consider the issues that arise when participating in this way as the norms surrounding protecting survivors and victims are challenged. In addition to privacy concerns, there can also be an overlap with other kinds of messages being aligned with a hashtag. She gave an example of a film and hashtag activist movement sharing the same hashtag, which caused confusion as these conversations overlapped with one another.
When dealing with sensitive material, as is the case with trending hashtags tied to traumatic events or experiences, ethics are a key consideration for rhetoricians. Short yet specific hashtags seem to have greater rhetorical velocity, but what are the costs of that and where do we draw the line? Losh noted writing works best when rules are flexible, but with hashtags there is little room for flexibility. Precision matters as people use hashtags to talk to one another and for machines to talk to machines.
Although Losh’s talk was critiqued for not including a content warning, and rightfully so in my opinion, she wove together a rich discussion of the role that women and feminism play in hashtag activism from the early days of the Internet to more current movements taking place. The importance of this scholarship cannot be understated, but scholars studying such movements and sharing their research should consider audience more fully. As someone who has studied challenging topics, it took a toll on me as a researcher and it was difficult to write in a way that told the necessary story while being sensitive to the triggering nature of the content. It’s a difficult line to tread, but an important one nonetheless. We need this research, but we also need to present it with care.
To end, I’d like to quote a line from her talk that effectively summed up why, as digital rhetoricians, we should be paying attention: “The metadata is, increasingly, the message.”