Online Activism with Hashtagivist

Katie Williams and Richard Kraaijenhagen have created an interesting program that is designed to help activists use twitter to get their messages out to a wider audience.

Their program is called Hashtagivist and was recently introduced at The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam where they participated in the Kings of Code Hack Battle. Katie and Richard built their website in just 36 hours and it might be able to help you take immediate action too.

Katie was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with me and to explain a bit more of about the intended purpose of her and Richard’s coding project.

You can also watch this video, which I recommend to you in order to learn about Hastagivist and the hacker contest, but also because of a wonderful moment of diversity activism at the beginning of the video.

A man makes a short announcement and then gets up from the judges panel and gives his seat to a woman since none were represented. Seriously, it’s a beautiful moment and something we have talked on this blog but I’ve never seen actually happen at a conference. After that you can see Katie and Richard’s project pitch.

And now on to my interview with Katie Williams!

hashtag activism

What got you interested in the topic of online activism?

I’ve always been interested in equality, and used to believe that poverty was the main issue, coming from a low-income background myself. I joined Teach for America after university, and spent two years working in a low income school district in Phoenix. Luckily, Teach for America does some amazing diversity training, which was a really illuminating experience for a rural white girl, like me.

That’s not to say that women don’t face inequality as well, and after working in startups from San Francisco to Amsterdam, I realized that the tech industry is a tough place for a female. So, for me, the intersection of poverty and gender has played a huge role in my own life. That makes me more empathetic when hearing the stories of others who face more institutionalized forms of oppression, and racism, and the injustices that others suffer that are far beyond my own limited comprehension, really propels me to join that battle for equality in all sectors.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expert in intersectionalism, but I enjoy learning, and hearing from the experiences of others to increase my own knowledge. Online activists like Suey Park and Micky Kendall (just to name a few) have really inspired me, because they’re always pushing relevant content on Twitter, blogs, etc.

As a How I Met Your Mother fan, I was super embarrassed and let down when an episode ran this past season that showed the main characters in “yellow face”. I mean, that’s just totally uncouth, and the fact that a major TV network allowed that to happen speaks a lot about the privilege that those in power at NBC hold. And, they have to know that this isn’t ok. Kids watch TV, and the last thing we want is for the next generation to perpetuate worn-out stereotypes.

I was later on Twitter and saw that Suey Park had started a hashtag #HowIMetYourRacism, which was awesome. She gets a lot of flack for being so bold, but I think it’s great. Someone has to be, right? And, I love that Twitter enables topics to go viral immediately. It’s really exciting that this medium can be used for social change.

The only issue is that unless you’re really active on Twitter, you might not find these campaigns while they’re gaining traction, and that’s the moment when you could be really helpful to a campaign. That’s how the idea for Hashtagivist was born.

How have you combined your skills as a hacker and developer with the ideals and motives of online activism?

In all honesty, I’m quite new to the field of programming. When I was working in San Francisco a couple years ago for a tech start-up doing communications, I realized that I needed to know more about coding. So, I took some online courses, and joined some meet ups, etc. I was really surprised at how easy it was to pick up, because I’d always held this stereotype about coding, that it was too difficult, and only super smart “math-minded” individuals could understand it. When I dug deeper into my patterns of thought, I realized that I’d somehow always held this belief that I wasn’t good at math and science. How embarrassing to realize that I’ve been gender biased against myself for 20-some years!

I’d actually joined The Next Web hackathon last year with a different team, but we unfortunately didn’t finish. So, this year I wanted to finish, and present a hack that heralded equality. Last year at Tech Crunch Disrupt some dudes presented a “tit staring app” (while an adolescent girl was also in attendance to present her project), which projects this dude-ish image of the tech world that is sadly, in many ways, quite accurate. But, it also projects this dude-tech-image through media coverage of the event, and perpetuates, again, worn out stereotypes. Kids see, and believe these stereotypes. The cycle continues. We have to break the cycle as quickly as possible, and technology will enable us to do so.

I wanted to create something that would say, “Girls can program, and programmers can care about social justice issues, too.” In my opinion, this is the next frontier. Technology is, and will, perpetuate equality, and that is perhaps, the most exciting occurrence of our time.



Can you tell us how Hashtagivist can help someone like me get the word out about a topic? For example, if there was a billboard in Times Square advertising dangerous messages about alternative medicine or false messages about vaccine safety, how could I use your service to help get that billboard pulled down?

I think first you’d have to have the hashtag idea, like #vaccinelies, or whatnot. The first step would be to enter that hashtag into Hashtagivist via a super easy form that basically asks, “What’s the hashtag?”, “What’s your Twitter username?”, and “What category does this fit into?”.

You’d still want to promote your hashtag using your Twitter account, and other social media accounts, but now a few more things will happen:

Hashtagivist users who are signed up to that topic that you entered for your hashtag will get an alert that a new hashtag has been posted.

Users visiting Hashtagivist can find your hashtag (and see how it’s trending) under the topics you’ve designated for it.

You can track your campaign’s success on Hashtagivist.


Are you concerned that people will try to hack Hashtagivist? Hashtag crashing is a common practice. Do you have a way of preventing negative information or “fake” messages from being included in the data that you put out?

Hashtagivist is based on user input, so technically, yes people could input a fake, or inappropriate hashtag. Luckily, though, as the system administrator I can keep an eye on new hashtags to make sure that they really fit our topics.

As we grow, this task could become larger than just lil’ ole moi curating the site. So, we’re open for ideas as we scale!



How can other activists help with your project?

This is really what we need help on. First, we’d love to get feedback from activists to see how we can tweak the platform to meet their needs. Secondly, activists would need to input their hashtags on our site.



Where can we find you on the web?

Twitter: @Fiberopticnow

Thank you so much for taking the time to explain Hashtagivist to us Katie, and and a shout-out to Richard for his work building the site!




Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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One Comment

  1. I think it all depends. I find a lot of my messages are hard to reduce to 140 characters. Take vaccines.

    worrying about the only answer to disease in a country founded on genocide and biological warfare is white privilege #VaccineLies

    That works, to some extent. But it’s not going to work for demonstrating why antivaxxers are wrong.

    There’s also an annoying tendency for some traditional to still have trouble with hashtags. Indian Country Today Media Network still puts spaces in #IdleNoMore for no reason.

    Of course, I don’t think of Twitter as a revolution, but as a medium through which revolutionaries can disseminate our propaganda. (And yes, we’re all propagandists. I own the snarl word. I state my opinions, therefore I’m a propagandist, and people who disagree with me will declare me such anyway.)

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