2011's Top Hashtags Are Perfect Snapshot of Internet's Power, Inanity
Twitter's assembled a nice set of lists documenting the topics, places and hashtags that dominated the site this year—and wouldn't you know, it tells you basically everything you need to know about the internet.
In fact, you don't even need to look at all eight of Twitter's "top hashtags." Just look at the first two: #egypt and #tigerblood. One was used to aid and document the incredible toppling of a dictator; the other, to observe and support a sitcom star's manic episode. One is a testament to the communicative power of the internet, the other to its unquenchable thirst for inanity. One is moving and amazing. The other one is about Charlie Sheen dating two women at the same time. The rest of the top eight is similarly schizophrenic: #japan and #jan25 (the date of the first Tahrir Square protest) make an appearance; but so do three different, equally boring trending topics that allow people to make insipid observations about their lives.
But, before you get depressed: This is all okay, according to the "Cute Cat Theory," developed by internet researcher Ethan Zuckerman. When people use Twitter or other internet platforms to share boring, inane things—like cute cat pictures or Charlie Sheen Tweets—they're unwittingly providing space for activists, too:
Most Tunisians don't identify as activists and might not be engaged with politics. But, like Americans and Europeans, they're interested in seeing cute cats being adorable online. When the government blocks DailyMotion, it impacts a much wider swath of Tunisians than those who are politicially active. Cute cats are collateral damage when governments block sites. And even those who could care less about presidential shenanigans are made aware that their government fears online speech so much that they're willing to censor the millions of banal videos on DailyMotion to block a few political ones.
So long as Twitter is being used for Charlie Sheen's meltdowns, governments will have a hard time censoring it—and activists will have an open channel for communication. And that's why it's okay for the internet to be stupid, sometimes.