When I started graduate school and left behind a campus full of support and safety, I had a hard time adjusting and making friends. I never thought I would find friends through Twitter, but as I became physically ill, had knee surgery, and struggled as the only Asian American in my cohort, I quickly found that Twitter was my refuge and it became my community. Much like the stigma of online dating, I never thought I would meet people through twitter because I never had a problem making friends before. However, with my passion for racial justice, I found it hard to meet people in graduate school with similar interests, and so connected by way of shared values and interests through Twitter.
It was surprising at first. Though relatively new to Twitter, it was an interface that was natural to me. All I did was to share my heartbreaks, my wins, and my frustration in a real and open way, and I found that my vulnerability drew in more followers, or friends as I call them. The only pro-tip I can give about using Twitter is to never forget that the people on the other side of the screen are as real as you are. If you forget this, then you are forgetting that communication technologies are not cold and mechanical, but are simply a platform to allow for human interaction.
In the last month, I’ve had everyone from huge corporations to education specialists reach out to me for tips on how to make a hashtag trend, most end up discouraged when they realize that although there are algorithms and metrics, as seen in the Anatomy of A Hashtag by Al Jazeera, it actually takes a community to create a trending hashtag.
But when I tell corporations this, they are frustrated by my explanation. The truth being that I have a physical illness, a disability, and a severe anxiety disorder. That means that from an early age I knew the importance of community and relying on others because I was too frail, too quiet, too sensitive to stand up for myself. And the beauty of learning such a lesson at an early age is that individualism was never an option for me.
Meanwhile, corporations are all about individualism rather than collective action for the benefit of an entire community. People participate in social justice hashtags because of their invested interest in them and not because I simply tell people to join. The viral success of #NotYourAsianSidekick after I first tweeted the tag on December 15, 2013, wasn’t about me, but all of us.
My personal friends as well as my Twitter community really carried the conversation. My friend Juliet Shen encouraged me to take breaks for my health. She and my friends Cayden Mak and Justin Valas stayed up all night to monitor the tag and make sure that trolls and arguments did not destroy the generative conversation. Much to my delight, I woke up 8 hours later to see that #NotYourAsianSidekick was still trending, which I know was not my doing, but that of my friends and my community.
In the words of Jeff Yang, who said it better than I ever could, “These threads won’t weave themselves, nor will these chains break of their own accord, and unless we join hands and swim together, unless we become each others’ sidekicks, the river of memory will sweep us away.” And in the aftermath of #NotYourAsianSidekick, I still see the importance of continually unlearning scarcity myths. Until we first challenge American individualism in our own minds we can never dismantle it at large.
And then I watched in horror as the media selectively left behind my comments on community and collective action, and instead focused on just me as an individual. As my friend Muna Mire recently wrote in her piece about Martin Luther King Jr. this week: “Movements don't happen because of charismatic individuals, movements happen because people organize, raise consciousness and treat each other and the oppressor humanely."
Similarly, the media made #NotYourAsianSidekick primarily about me and my colorblocked outfit - the now iconic green shirt and yellow skirt. Of course this makes sense as the media gets more clicks out of selling and commodifying me as a young Asian American woman, offering me 15 minutes of fame in return for my sidekick appearances.
So if not me as an individual, then what is the significance of #NotYourAsianSidekick?
Well, in her piece The Revolution WILL be tweeted, Professor Imani Perry wrote: “Communication technologies are necessary tools for sharing the kind of news that gets people out of their seats. Mainstream media blackouts are impotent in the face of digital age couriers, carrying words like modern day David Walkers, Ida B. Wells’ or Paul Reveres. For today’s freedom fighters, twitter is one extremely useful technology. So if it’s going to happen, the revolution indeed will be tweeted.” She highlights how corporate-owned media will never broadcast a true movement whereas Twitter allows us to change the narrative and broadcast our own news.
When I first read Professor Perry's piece it felt like a call to action. From my experience organizing I saw that some old methods worked and that some felt stale and reproduced. I have long criticized protests for being manufactured in nature rather than organic. I yearned for a space where I could build and move in a way that was kind to my body and also creative in its intervention. After reading her piece and observing how many groups utilized twitter to make change, I decided to give it a whirl.
In graduate school my favorite course was “Race and US Social Movements,” and I found a repeated theme in which leaders would base where people already gathered to build movements with greater capacity and numbers. For me, that opportunity space was twitter and my intention behind #NotYourAsianSidekick was the base build. Leading up to the global conversation, I already saw conversations, consciousness raising, and resistance happening. All I did was create a space where we could streamline our energies.
Although I also organize outside of Twitter, I also see it as an extension of my work. It allows for a synergistic effect by allowing many individual voices to make a loud collective impact. Again to quote Jeff Yang: “It’s also more evidence of what I’ve referred to as our 'special mutant power' as Asian Americans — our ability to gather a thunderous hammerstrike of digital traffic and drop it from space on an unsuspecting target. We are, essentially, a kind of organically organized distributed denial of service attack, sending traffic soaring when we direct our attention at things we like, or don’t like, as the case may be.”
Many belittle the Twitter community and twitter feminism and I saw many patronizing opinions from leading white feminists following the release of Can Feminist Hashtags ‘Dismantle the State’? When my mentions were getting flooded with white feminists explaining to me that Twitter was useless, Mikki Kendall, writer and founder of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen tweeted at me “You’re about to explain community to people that have none.”
It’s ironic, isn’t it? That “thousands of feminists similarly gave an online middle finger to those that reject them, namely patriarchal Asian-American spaces and white feminists” as Kai Ma wrote. She also wrote “what pierced through the tweets was a broad slam around the silence from non-Asian feminists around our causes,” and yet we saw the most vocal opposition after we dared to speak up.
Before all this started, a professor told me that Ella Baker used to ask “Who are your people?” A question I realized I first had to answer for myself before I could envision any next steps. As Professor and author Barbara Ransby wrote: “Ella Baker taught us how we ought to do our movement work: take time to be inclusive, be active listeners, walk the thorny and sometimes circuitous path of participatory democracy, mutual respect and genuine solidarity; and build campaigns from the bottom up not the top down. Today’s progressives should take these lessons to heart, if they want to succeed in creating the social change our world desperately needs.” For me, Twitter is a space where many people can have voices and generate change.
So what does it take to trend a hashtag? A community.