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

CityPress - - Voices - Dion Chang voices@ city­press. co. za

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 well­known, 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-tood­is­tant 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.flux­

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