If there was any doubt that 2014 was the year the hashtag went mainstream, look no further than that bastion of linguistic propriety, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (which happens to be the reference book of record for Advocate editors). This year, the word "hashtag" (along with "selfie," "tweep," and "crowdfund") was added to the epistemological encyclopedia, notes Yahoo! Tech.
The hashtag's ability to serve as a summary, unifying label, or even a call to action, has allowed it to embody a unique place in the new multimedia sphere that sees protests, movements, and even revolutions begin over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
As such, we thought it fitting to cull through the year's most popular hashtags and determine which were the most important, most impactful, and most critical in advancing equality, justice, and even simple understanding. As it turns out, each of our selections were three-word phrases that powerfully spoke to larger, complex issues.
Using an admittedly unscientific approach that only loosely relied upon the tweets that were numerically most popular, we present our retrospective of the year in hashtags, starting with the unequivocally most powerful hashtag of 2014:
The year's most powerful hashtag first gained prominence on social media last year, following the shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent "not guilty" verdict reached by the jury trying George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch vigilante who followed the teenager and shot him to death, citing the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.
It was resurrected in big, important ways this year, particularly following the deaths of unarmed black males Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. It became a rallying cry for protests that continue to sweep the nation calling for justice for what many consider extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men and unchecked violence and profiling by uniformed police officers against people of color nationwide.
But how many of those using the hashtag knew that it was conceived by a trio of queer black women? The Feminist Wire has an in-depth, first-person account of the genesis of #BlackLivesMatter, powerfully told by Alicia Garza, who created the hashtag along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.
In the spirit of the simple sentiment that has emboldened a movement demanding respect, safety, and a place at the table, we'll let Garza explain what the hashtag was created to signify — and what it wasn't:
"Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. …
"When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country — one half of all people in prisons or jails — is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that 500,000 Black people in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence; the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence. And the fact is that the lives of Black people — not ALL people — exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence."
Bestselling author, media maven, and transgender advocate Janet Mock didn't mean to inspire a movement when she first began tweeting about her experiences and those of other trans women she encountered under the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs. She was, however, looking for a phrase that reflected some of those commonalities — and the wisdom gleaned from suffering discrimination and fighting to define oneself on her own terms — shared by many trans women, separate from the "political and medical terms" transgender and transsexual, she writes on her blog.
"As a young woman, I only used those terms a few times," Mock explained in a May 2012 post on her website that describes the impetus for #GirlsLikeUs. "They didn’t sing to my inner sense of being, they were mere labels meant to organize me and put me in my place. So how did I identify? I was a girl automatically reared as a boy who rebelled against my family’s expectations to be the woman I knew myself to be."
Mock explains that she reluctantly embraced myriad terms used to describe trans women, because none of them fit her lived reality
"But it wasn’t until I began speaking to other girls who grew up like I did in my post-coming out life during speaking engagements and fundraisers, on Twitter and Facebook, over coffees and dinner and on subways, that I began using phrases like, "You know how girls like us do,'" she explained. "'You know girls like us are doing big things.' 'Girls like us know how to make it work, honey.'"
#GirlsLikeUs is for ALL trans women, regardless of color, but all who lend their voice to amplify ours knows that intersectionality matters.
— Janet Mock (@janetmock) May 15, 2012
In 2014, the hashtag continued its meteoric rise to prominence, becoming a "badge of honor," Mock notes. Other prominent trans women have adopted the phrase, and it has indeed become an insider reference to stories, tweets, and photos about and important to trans women around the world.
We saw evidence of the hashtag's enduring relevance in The Advocate's annual Day In LGBT photo essay, where users submitted photos on December 9, 2014, accompanied not only by the tag we requested, #DayInLGBT, but also by #GirlsLikeUs.
Born out of the tragedy spawned by Elliot Rodger's shooting rampage University of California Santa Barbara in May, which left seven people, including Rodger, dead, #YesAllWomen became a powerful vehicle for women to share their personal experiences with male entitlement, notes Mashable.
While Rodger's violent misogynism was undoubtedly an extreme example of the ways sexism — and an overarching, if often unstated belief that men have a right to the attention and in some cases the bodies and lives of women — plays out daily, women from around the country used the hashtag to illuminate how a patriarchal society that devalues women has impacted their lives.
The tweets called out everything from the mundane, normalized instances of sexism:
a "cool story babe, now make me a sandwich" shirt doesn't break the school dress code. a girl's bra strap does. #yesallwomen
— #YesAllWomen (@yesallwomen) May 26, 2014
To the outright violence and harassment that #YesAllWomen face at some point in their lives:
Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One. #YesAllWomen
— Emily (@emilyhughes) May 24, 2014
Notably, the hashtag earned the ire of some calling themselves "Men's Rights Activists," who often utilized a pre-existing hashtag, #NotAllMen, in an effort to derail the conversation. But as Mashable notes, in the wake of the UCSB shootings, many of the tweets bearing #NotAllMen sought to stand in solidarity with the women tweeting under #YesAllWomen.
But that doesn't mean some women didn't push back, as summarized brilliantly in this tweet from author Jean Johnson:
— Jean Johnson (@JeanJAuthor) May 26, 2014
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were a tense time not only for the athletes who had spent their lives working toward that moment on the world stage, but for the countless LGBT activists, athletes, fans, and spectators keenly aware of the host nation's draconian ban on so-called gay propaganda. Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't exactly soothe anyone's nerves when he told reporters that LGBT people would be welcome in Sochi, so long as they "leave children in peace," or when one of Putin's top ministers echoed that equation of LGBT people with pedophiles.
In preparation for the 2014 Games, corporate sponsor McDonald's attempted to launch a hashtag of its own: #CheerstoSochi. The tag was intended to offer congratulations and well-wishes to Olympic athletes, reports BuzzFeed.
But LGBT activists had other plans, promptly highjacking the hashtag with a sarcastic interpretation, pointing out human rights abuses by the host country and tagging those posts with #CheerstoSochi. The activists subsequently used the hashtag to demand that corporate sponsors, including McDonald's and Coca-Cola, denounce Russia's anti-LGBT policies. (Despite repeated and varied efforts to get Coke to take a stand against the draconian law, the beverage giant never issued a statement directly addressing Russia's record on human rights.)
Scott Wooledge, an activist with Queer Nation New York, discovered that McDonald's had purchased the domain CheerstoSochi.com, but had not reserved CheerstoSochi.org. So he bought that domain for $10, and promptly turned the page into a point of aggregation for stories critical of Russia's hosting of the Olympics, BuzzFeed reports.
Driving the criticism home, Queer Nation NY released a re-edited version of the classic Coca-Cola ad that proclaims "I'd like to buy the world a Coke," splicing the utopian, peaceful scenes of the original spot with footage from Russia's violent crackdown on LGBT people.
Ultimately, McDonald's stopped using the hashtag, redirected the webpage it had created with the domain name to the site's general "About" page, and issued a statement saying it was aware that some activists were using the hashtag to target Olympic sponsors, and that "McDonald’s supports human rights, the spirit of the Olympics and all the athletes who’ve worked so hard to compete in the Games. We believe the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media, and athletes."
Various iterations of this hashtag effectively took on different meanings: Originally started as a call to action in America's epidemic of gun violence, specifically in the wake of the UCSB shooting, the fully spelled out hashtag was a coordinated effort launched by a "media-savvy writer with political experience who took to the airwaves to galvanize support, and then backed up by the well-funded machinery of former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg," according to the Wall Street Journal.
While addressing media outside the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's office, Richard Martinez, whose son was killed in the UCSB rampage, called on viewers to ask their political leaders to impose tighter gun regulations and consider the impact of the ever-growing list of casualties from gun violence. "We should say to ourselves, 'Not one more!'" Martinez told media on May 24. Martinez, who holds a J.D. and previously served as a consultant and speechwriter for a California politician, acknowledged that he wrote the speech and the call to action ahead of time, fine-tuning it with feedback from family and friends.
Within a week, Martinez had become "an unofficial spokesperson for the bereaved relatives of gun violence victims," reports the Journal. He teamed up with Manhattan-based nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, which helped create a social media campaign that automatically generated postcards sent to politicians bearing the phrase "Not One More" and calling for "commonsense laws to reduce gun violence. On May 27, Martinez crystallized the call to action in a statement to media, which readily lent itself to a hashtag:
"Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician with three words on it: ‘Not one more,’" said Martinez. "People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand for up for something. Enough is enough."
By early June, the Journal reported that more than 127,000 tweets had been sent using the hashtag #NotOneMore. And more than 2.4 million postcards had been sent to politicians, demanding common-sense gun safety laws, and demanding #NotOneMore.
A similar phrase with a different message, #Not1More is the brainchild of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and seeks an end to what many consider to be an inhumane immigration system that regularly sees families torn apart by deportation of undocumented immigrants who encounter law enforcement for nonviolent offenses like traffic violations.
By collectively challenging unfair deportations and inequality through organizing, art, legislation, and action, we aim to reverse criminalization, build migrant power, and create immigration policies based on principles of inclusion," proclaims Not1MoreDeportation.com. "#Not1More accompanies and galvanizes the determination of millions of immigrants who have endured suffering and now are exercising the right to remain in the place they call home."
In existence prior to President Obama's announcement of executive action that will give relief to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants facing potential deportation, the hashtag and the campaign it represents focuses on individual deportation cases, allowing supporters to sign petitions supporting more than 150 undocumented immigrants facing deportation — including at least one transgender woman who was reportedly raped and assaulted while in a detention facility in Arizona.
"Together we say: not one more family destroyed, not one more day without equality, not one more indifferent reaction to suffering, not one more deportation," concludes the campaign's website.
Just because reporters happen to belong to the LGBT community doesn't mean they are immune from criticism. And nowhere is that more true than on the Internet. Out CNN anchor Don Lemon learned that lesson the hard way this year, as various gaffes and insensitive remarks (a review of them on video here) earned the anchor his very own hashtag: #DonLemonReporting.
Activists first launched the sarcastic hashtag in November, when Lemon told Joan Tarshis, one of the first women to publicly accuse Bill Cosby of rape in recent onslaught of allegations, that "there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it…" He went on to suggest "the using of the teeth… as a weapon." Tarshis responded by saying that no, "that never crossed [her] mind."
Pouncing on what many claimed was Lemon's victim blaming, the unfortunate remark inspired a litany of tweets that reframed historical events as Lemon might report them:
"Why didn't Kennedy duck when he heard the gunshot? I would have." #DonLemonReporting
— TBogg (@tbogg) November 19, 2014
#donlemonreporting "I dont feel sorry for people who live in impoverished, dangerous neighborhoods; they can always move"
— Mercer Creed (@MercerCreed) November 19, 2014
— Angie Aker (@ANGIEaker) November 19, 2014
Just a week later, Lemon placed his foot squarely inside his mouth again, prompting a revival of the hashtag lampooning his reporting.
While covering the local reaction in Ferguson, Mo., to a grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown to death, Lemon inexplicably prefaced his report by stating "obviously, there's a smell of marijuana is in the air."
We'll let Salon explain why this brief moment so perfectly summed up the numerous tweets degrading #DonLemonReporting:
"Oh, obviously. It’s that one word — obviously — that so handily encapsulates Don Lemon’s inappropriate magic. Supercilious when he should be grave, ridiculous when he should be dignified, self-important when he should be reflective, Don Lemon still hasn’t mastered the art of not making a live report all about him. After that point, Lemon could have been hit in the face by a beanbag round on camera, and people would have laughed, then memed."
Arising in response to a grand jury's decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for using an illegal chokehold that killed Eric Garner after officers accused the Staten Island man of selling loose cigarettes, #CrimingWhileWhite features white people confessing to generally minor, nonviolent crimes, like speeding, shoplifting, or driving under the influence, then highlighting the lax (or often nonexistent) punishment they received when confronted by law enforcement.
As explained by ThinkProgress, the premise behind the hashtag is that "white people can get away with crimes that would land a black person behind bars — or worse."
Where theoretical conversations about the admittedly academic-sounding concept of white privilege can be difficult for some white people to understand and put others on the defensive, distilling the concept to a hashtag anchored in lived experiences could help shift the conversation around what it means to benefit from the color of one's skin in this country:
I'm not proud of it, but when I was 22 I pushed a cop when I was drunk at a bar. I was told to go home and "sleep it off" #CrimingWhileWhite
— Jeremy Scheuch (@jeremyscheuch) December 4, 2014
In closed park after curfew, underage drinking liquor bought with fake IDs. Cop told us, "Get on home," let us drive away #CrimingWhileWhite
— Jenny Grace (@grace134) December 4, 2014
caught smoking weed on private property, lied repeatedly to cops, they found an oz in my car, told me to drive home slow #CrimingWhileWhite
— natie (@UncleNatie) December 3, 2014
While the hashtag has been critiqued — quite fairly — for itself being an example of white privilege by reframing discussions of racism to focus on the experiences of white people, it does provide a concrete point of entry for many people who may struggle to understand the real-world implications of white privilege.
And in response, some African-Americans began tweeting under the hashtag #AliveWhileBlack to share stories of encounters with law enforcement where they were treated suspiciously, despite not doing anything illegal, and often simply going about their daily lives:
Crossing the grocery store parking lot. Cops stopped to ask me what I was doing there. I was holding grocery bags. #Alivewhileblack
— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) December 4, 2014
This hashtag isn't new, as LGBT activists and allies have been using it to call for equality for several years. But in the wake of a truly historic year for same-sex couples — which saw the number of states embracing marriage equality double to encompass a majority of the country — this hashtag was perhaps the most universally shared by those celebrating the freedom to marry and, to some extent, calling for greater LGBT equality in other countries.
With a simple, self-explanatory phrase, #LoveIsLove proclaims a truth that LGBT advocates and allies have long known, as well as a recent and important shift in the messaging used by marriage equality advocates. By focusing on the love, commitment, and genuine family values (that is, the emotional value one feels toward their own family) that are shared across states, faith practices, gender, and cultural differences, marriage equality advocates have been able to take the wind out of the sails of antigay activists who insisted on focusing on the prurient details of the supposed sex lives of LGBT people.
The hashtag accompanied countless photos on Twitter and Instagram of same-sex couples gleefully taking advantage of the newly affirmed right to marry the person they love, and steadily appeared throughout social media and real-life protests calling for an end to anti-LGBT harassment and policies in places as far-flung as Russia and Uganda.
Here's hoping that 2015 in the year we, as a nation and as a society, can finally, ultimately proclaim, once and for all, that #LoveIsLove.