Hashtags, in general, are stupid. They're really, really stupid.
Some people use them as keywords (#chicago, #nightlife, #socks), some people use them as qualifiers (#sorrynotsorry, #butseriously, #ihatemymom) and some people (cough, social media managers) use them to misguidedly encourage followers to hop on their #ilovebrand bandwagon, in the hopes of having something, anything to prove they're worth their paycheck.
And then something like #Ferguson happens.
In this case, Twitter is using #Ferguson as more of a search term or keyword to chronicle and document a timeline of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of unarmed black teen Mike Brown by a police officer on Saturday. The small suburb of St. Louis has become a scene unlike any we've seen in the past few decades in the U.S., with police in riot gear clearing out buildings, blocking roadways and throwing tear gas as reportedly peaceful protesters demand answers. Also important: Ferguson currently is a no-fly zone, essentially preventing any news helicopters from capturing live aerial footage.
For what arguably is the first time in many years in the U.S., Twitter users' coverage and conversation about a very newsworthy event has overtaken that of the traditional media. Blame it on the media blackout from the city of Ferguson itself, or maybe on the powers-that-be in mainstream media who would rather fill air time with sexier stories -- either way, it's clear the widespread knowledge of the events and outrage for the people in Ferguson would not exist without Twitter.
Without people on the ground in Missouri creating their own livestreams and tweeting photos and videos, details about a man left screaming for medical assistance, about police slamming a journalist's head against a door during an unlawful arrest and sarcastically apologizing, about people in the Gaza Strip giving advice to Ferguson on dealing with tear gas probably would never come to light beyond the borders of St. Louis. Talk to anyone you know who largely ignores social media, and it's pretty likely they'll be somewhat clueless about the escalating situation.
While traditional media still has its place, it's becoming clearer how influential the everyman, the social media user -- you -- has become in contrast to news outlets with seemingly large reaches. President Obama didn't deliver a statement Thursday on Ferguson because citizens' reactions were broadcast on CNN -- that was Twitter's doing. And while the media blackout in Ferguson certainly is not the norm -- "In the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are trying to do their jobs," Obama said -- it does happen more than we realize.
#Ferguson is an incredible reminder of the power and reach of social media in 2014, and of its real potential to add value and create change. This is what Twitter and everything that came after originally were created for. Despite the unfortunate circumstances that serve as a reminder, the hashtag creates a small sense of hope and social justice amid the selfie and narcissistic garbage we often fall victim to online.
Jessica Galliart is RedEye's Social Media Lady. She thinks your use of hashtags is stupid, but you're probably a good person anyway.
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