Hashtags Are the 21st-century Digital Yellow Ribbons

Would it be socially acceptable to knock on the doors of those who tied a yellow ribbon around a tree in their yard and ask them if they were actually accomplishing anything? No - so lay off the hashtaggers.

The international Jewish community is reeling from the devastating news that has unfolded over the last few days.

Three innocent teenage boys are missing and all indications are that they are victims of a terrorist abduction plot. Thrust into a conflict they did not choose, these young men occupy our thoughts and prayers. No matter where one resides on the political spectrum, the pain is visceral, the feelings are real, and we want someone to #BringBackOurBoys.

Except, seeing a hashtag before the punctuation-challenged phrase adamantly asserting that we want to bring out boys back manages to polarize the closest of friends and turn allies into social media foes. Some people insist that the only way to show one cares about our boys is to hashtag them until they are back home. Others are equally insistent that hashtags are everything wrong with our modern society and that they naively whisper narcissistic nothings into the spring air. “Real activists” and cynics stand shoulder to shoulder with their counter hashtag equivalent social media campaign as they mock the hashtag activists who should be spending their time and digital camera storage on much more important things (like fighting against hashtag activists).

If all of this sounds petty and stupid, it’s because it is petty and stupid.

Hashtaggers are not so delusional to think that Twitter #Kony2012 or #YesAllWomen or #BringBackOurGirls or #BringBackOurBoys will actually depose Kony, stop all men from acting like Neanderthals around women, or return kidnapping victims. Implying that the hashtaggers are so completely idiotic is idiotic. Tweeting a hashtag isn’t about saving the world. There’s a much more basic reason to hashtag for social causes. The reson is solidarity.

Hashtags are the 21st century version of the yellow ribbon, a flag pin, or a political button. It’s a symbolic gesture that connects people who care about the same cause. Fighting the hashtaggers winds up sounding more like battling against the cause than objecting to the medium. Would it be socially acceptable to knock on the doors of the millions of people who tied a yellow ribbon around a tree in their front yard during the Gulf War and ask them if they were actually accomplishing anything with their silly yellow ribbon? Of course not. Would any of the hashtag freedom fighters dare to mock a U.S. Senator for wearing a pin of the American flag during a military operation? “As if he thinks his pin is helping anyone?”

When tragedy strikes or when we are outraged by injustice we can feel helpless. That’s mostly because when it comes to our ability to stop Kony or rescue hundreds of high school girls in Nigeria, we are pretty much impotent. Hopelessness is a scary and dangerous emotion. When we are alone in our fears and we don’t trust the world to be safe and comfortable, we can discover dark places in our hearts that can harm us emotionally and even physically.

So we hashtag and we connect with others who share our concerns and anxieties and all of a sudden, the world is not so dark. There are others who are lighting up the night with us. It’s a digital vigil. We stand together with our candles raised to the sky. Nothing changes at a vigil, except the people who participate in the vigil. The world feels a little different to those people. It’s a little brighter. Despite the tragic circumstances, and no matter how bleak it all seems, there are others like me out there.

The emotional trauma our hearts and minds endure on a daily basis as we are barraged by an infinite assault of tragic news and negativity takes its toll on us. Connecting to others with a hashtag is a simple and effective way to combat the inevitable defeatism and depression that normal people are apt to feel in a world of a 24-hour news cycle of pain and suffering. Hashtags are a way to signal our pain and invite others to express their solidarity and commiserate with us.

People have always used external symbols to identify with others. The Israelites in the Sinai Desert used flags to unite their tribes. There was no religious significance to these flags. They were just symbols of solidarity. In many ways, the cross is a Christian expression of solidarity. To a Christian who is in pain because of the death of Jesus, a cross is a source of comfort and it is used that way by Christians to this very day. Sports fans wear their team’s gear and cheer as they observe the team’s triumphs. The gear doesn’t help and the cheering is useless, but there’s something to the instant connection that a symbol can provide.

A hashtag is just the modern digital incarnation of the flag, the yellow ribbon, the pin, and any other visual symbol that connects people. These connections are so important and that’s what the hashtags are about, not actually fixing the problem. A unified voice might also guide leaders by telling them what the people want -- but that’s only a possible byproduct. That’s not the goal of the hashtag army.

They aren’t really battling Kony or Boko Haram or Hamas – they are fighting their own despair and malaise so they can cope with life in this imperfect world.