What can a hashtag do? Sometimes, it can help make the world a better place.
In recent months Australia has been on high alert for terrorist attacks, and those fears turned into reality on December 15, when an armed man held the employees and customers of a cafe in Sydney hostage for over sixteen hours. The man displayed a black flag with white Arabic script, often used by Islamic militants, in a window of the café during the ordeal, which ended with him and two hostages dead.
In the aftermath, the nation’s Muslims had cause to worry that the incident would cause an explosion of racism and anti-Islam backlash, leaving many afraid of taking public transportation.
And that’s where #IllRideWithYou came in.
As Sydney-based blogger “Sir Tessa” later explained to Guardian Australia, it began with a single tweet from TV reporter Michael James, about a simple act of kindness:
— Michael James (@MichaelJames_TV) December 15, 2014
Inspired, Tessa posted on her own Twitter:
If you reg take the #373 bus b/w Coogee/MartinPl, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule.
— Sir Tessa (@sirtessa) December 15, 2014
Maybe start a hashtag? What’s in #illridewithyou?
— Sir Tessa (@sirtessa) December 15, 2014
The idea soon went viral—according to the social media analytics website Topsy, just twelve hours later the hashtag had been tweeted over 150,000 times.
Many online campaigns are criticized for enabling nothing more than “slackivism”—clicking “Like” on a post isn’t going to help change the world—but #IllRideWithYou proved to be more than that. A glance through the tag shows thousands of people standing in solidarity with their fellow Australians, no matter what race, culture, or religion they are:
— Tanveer Naseer (@TanveerNaseer) December 16, 2014
As the #IllRideWithYou hashtag gained momentum, another idea was brought up:
You know, I’d be happy to sport an #IllRideWithYou badge on the tram or bus. Kinda like a Safety House Zone but for public transport.
— Bek Duke (@bek_d) December 15, 2014
Steph Speirs, a self-proclaimed “cynical optimist,” took the suggestion and ran with it:
— (@stephspeirs) December 15, 2014
On December 17, Speirs and a group of friends gathered at a station in Melbourne to offer commuters the #IllRideWithYou buttons and stickers they had had printed, and were overwhelmed by the response.
— Sarah Walker (@sarahtakesfotos) December 17, 2014
Wow, handed out 1000 #illridewithyou stickers at Flinders St. People were actually queuing to get them instead of running for their train.
— Thomas John Jaspers (@thomasjohn86) December 16, 2014
The tag inevitably received some backlash, especially after it came out that the original story behind it wasn’t entirely true. Still, the positivity it generated left even some skeptics feeling moved:
— Ben Harris-Roxas (@ben_hr) December 16, 2014
Tessa, the original creator of the tag, followed up with a post on her blog, telling those who had suspected otherwise that she is not leading any sort of nationwide movement: “There is no campaign back here, unless one heartsore woman flapping her chops on twitter is a campaign. This wasn’t planned. The rocket launched and I have no idea how to fly this thing.”
But, Tess writes, “We need this. So much of what is broadcast in general is hurt and damage and grief, that just to be reminded that other people care is no small thing. When feeling helpless, any tool is better than none, and there is so much to fight.”
For those who are not regular readers of her blog, she adds that her suggestion of safety in numbers was born from personal experience: as a biracial woman of color, Tessa knows exactly what it feels like to fear for her safety just because she happens to be traveling alone.
She points out, “Although this has risen from the events in Martin Place, it is a sentiment that does not stop at Muslims, or anyone wearing their religion or culture, or who does not dress according to their expected gender, or who is simply too not-white or not-male to ever take safety for granted. In those terms, I would be included as someone at risk. I’m afraid I’m not particularly intimidating and being a non-white woman it could be argued that I add to target attraction, instead of detracting from it.”
Thus, Tessa says, “We need this, but not as a bandaid. We’ve always needed this empathy, and we always will. But not just to make ourselves feel better. To make the world better. And keep it that way.
“A hashtag is a flash in a pan, but this will is not. This is a long campaign. Longer than this life. Hold on to that.”
She continues, “I expect some bad things will come of this, for which I am sorry for my part. I also expect some good things, because they have already happened. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to expect. There’s no stopping this now.”
Tessa adds that she does have one small request: “Speaking as one of those not-white people, I do humbly request a scarcity of white knighting. Bear your visible stickers like Neighbourhood Watch signs; not medals.
“It feels arrogant to say so, but I’m already proud of you.”
She concludes, “Extreme situations make heroes of barristers and store managers. For most of us, there are no extreme situations, and no heroes. Just you, me, and the rest of the world.”