After the stories broke about sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag #MeToo took off on Twitter — racking up half a million tweets in a single 24-hour period in October.
But only two days before that, another hashtag was trending: #WomenBoycottTwitter. Its goal? To call attention to the social media site’s glacial response to women’s reports of abuse and harassment.
While many women shared the boycotters’ anger over that issue, the boycott gained little traction. That’s in part because the site remains an important platform in many fields for connecting with a broader public, and in part because many users have (unfortunately) accepted harassment as a condition of using Twitter.
#MeToo, however, showed how women can use this vexing platform for a powerful feminist consciousness-raising campaign, as thousands of women shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment. The #MeToo campaign leaped to other social media — Facebook, Instagram — and helped propel the national reckoning that followed, and that continues today.
The moment, I believe, carried echoes of the original feminist consciousness-raising carried out by second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, although back then consciousness-raising happened in spaces like living rooms and libraries, subversive kaffeeklatsches organized by friends and groups like the Redstockings, and supplemented with magazines like Ms. and books like The Feminine Mystique. The explicit goal of that earlier movement was to persuade women that their unhappiness — what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name” — was not a product of their isolated experiences and emotions but of a shared system of oppression.
For those earlier feminists, the shock of recognition in other women’s stories turned the personal into the political (a once-radical notion, now threatening to curdle into cliché). These women transformed what felt like an individual pathology into a political cause. There was a strong element of that dynamic in #MeToo.
The rare hashtag that became more important than a meme
The #MeToo campaign was part of a transformative moment, one in which social media became a springboard for social change. That story cuts hard against the standard narrative of hashtag campaigns, regularly dismissed as “slacktivism” for their low-effort, low-yield approach to changing the world.
And while it was by far the most viral, #MeToo was hardly the first hashtag to call attention to the widespread experience of sexual assault and harassment: Witness 2014’s #YesAllWomen and #WhatWereYouWearing.
But the timing of the #MeToo campaign catalyzed a movement. Weinstein’s firing was a sign that something might be fundamentally different this time around, that powerful men were at last facing serious consequences for sexual abuse.
Perhaps that’s what encouraged so many women to share their stories, or to simply raise their hands. Or perhaps it was that, a year after the Access Hollywood tape and Donald Trump’s election, they were just tired of it all. Whatever tipped the hashtag over the edge, #MeToo quickly became a way not only for women to recount their experiences, but to join a distinct group of women oppressed in a very specific way.
When consciousness-raising took place in suburban living rooms
In her 1977 memoir Going Too Far, activist and author Robin Morgan recounted a consciousness-raising group where she admitted to the other women that she had faked an orgasm. “I was convinced that I was the only woman on the planet who had ever been sick enough to do this, but I finally did confess that I actually faked an orgasm with my husband,” she wrote, “at which point every woman in the room leaned forward, grinning, and said, ‘Oh you too.’”
You too. Us too. Me too. That kind of conversation led to bigger ones in the ‘60s and ‘70s: Why were conversations about women’s pleasure verboten? What did it say about the hierarchy of sexual relations that women’s orgasms were routinely treated as either a mystery or a myth, and that women felt compelled to play along?
In the same way, #MeToo operated not only on the emotional level — assuring women that they were not alone in their experiences of harassment and abuse — but on the political level. Why do so many American women share these experiences? What does it say about who has power and value?
Through #MeToo, Twitter acted as a conduit for both consciousness-raising and awareness-raising. As a public platform, the site not only connected women but published them. And that made their stories visible to countless men, many of whom responded with Wait, you too?! For some reason, this particular flood of hashtagged testimonials helped a growing number of men see that the stories they had heard from the women in their lives were in fact all connected. They, too, perceived that something bigger was happening — that the Cassandras were truth-tellers. It had the makings of a revolution.
The dark side of Twitter remains a significant problem
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
As #MeToo started trending on Twitter, one woman was notably absent: Lindy West. West, a feminist writer, is no stranger to Twitter as a site for potential consciousness-raising. In 2015, she co-created #ShoutYourAbortion, a social media campaign that encouraged women to speak openly about their decision to terminate their pregnancies. (That campaign mirrored another consciousness-raising tactic, the abortion speak-outs that began in 1969 as a way to bring women’s voices into debates about reproductive rights.)
But at the start of 2017, West deleted her Twitter account. Alt-right trolls, she explained, had transformed the site into one that undercut “long-held cultural givens such as ‘racism is bad’ and ‘sexual assault is bad’ and ‘lying is bad’ and ‘authoritarianism is bad.’” It had become a platform where hate speech and harassment flourished, without any intervention by the site’s leadership.
Abuse has driven away countless women, some who announced their decisions, like West and comic book writer Chelsea Cain, and others who chose to quietly shutter their accounts. (A former Twitter employee referred to the site as “a honeypot for assholes,” which is about as accurate a description as you’ll find for the site’s darker side.)
Others, like actor Leslie Jones and feminist writer Jessica Valenti, left for a while only to return, because a social media presence is an arguable necessity for journalists and other public figures, even though the toll of tweeting remains high for women, people of color, Jews, and Muslims.
That is the tension running through Twitter: It’s a place of both empowerment and diminishment, of activism and abuse. But that, too, has a precedent. So many of those consciousness-raising groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s met in the living rooms of suburban ranch houses, the very domestic spaces that served as site of women’s oppression. The women who gathered there were solving the mystery at the scene of the crime. In the process, they were transforming the spaces: rewriting traditional relationship dynamics, reimagining family life and responsibilities, remaking themselves.
That same process of transformation is possible for Twitter. The company knows it has a problem. Indeed, it’s known that for the better part of a decade. That it has become “a roiling rat-king of Nazis,” as West put it, has not done much for the brand. Now it is also facing congressional inquiries into the ways the site enabled foreign interference in the election.
It’s possible that women can seize this moment to transform Twitter, to maximize its potential and minimize its abuse. The leadership of the site doesn’t seem particularly invested in that vision, but as we’ve learned in the past six weeks, sometimes transformation comes suddenly, in ways you never expected.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.
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