While the schoolmarms parse data over whether #JeSuisCharlie is the most popular hashtag ever, the most popular news (not sports) hashtag ever, or the most popular one-day hashtag ever, what strikes me is the disparity between news hashtags and entertainment hashtags. In the final analysis, the five million, or so, uses of #JeSuisCharlie is just under one-sixth of the 32.1 million tweets of #WorldCupFinal last year and just over one-sixteenth of the 78 million tweets including #vote5sos during the MTV Music Awards. Is this disparity further evidence of the shallowness of the masses, of a mass sense of disinterested hopelessness, or the irresistible urge to blather on Twitter? Or perhaps people have a multitude of interests that ebb and flow in their social media chatter.
To be fair, 5 million tweets of #JeSuisCharlie is nothing to sneeze at. The global surge in tweets showing solidarity with the people of France and with journalists is impressive and meaningful. Similarly, the millions who tweeted the hashtags discussed here last week made a significant impact to the national and global conversations about those issues.
The fact that so many more tweets used the #WorldCupFinals and #vote5sos hashtags tells us that people would rather tweet about things they enjoy than the depressing array of violence and political mire featured in the news. This should be no surprise. Soccer/futbol fans around the world were extremely excited about the World Cup and its final game-not to mention the boost it got from the megabucks FIFA spent to advertise them-so heavy Twitter traffic about the finals should be expected. Similarly, the MTV Music Awards had a large audience of social media savvy music fans live-tweeting the multi-hour program; a program featuring some of the most popular people on Twitter. Again... no surprise.
Left to our druthers, people would rather chatter with each other about things that bring them joy. What #JeSuisCharlie tells us is that in a moment of crisis, when the world's eyes turn away from their fun-time activities to hone in on some horror playing out in the news, people pay attention. And many of those people will take to social media and share their support, express their views and keep each other informed.
Politics is only central to a small proportion of people's lives. For most people, politics is an unwelcome distraction. While major news events, like the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff, can break through the steady noise generated by the fans of entertainment, not all important issues can garner such attention.
The challenge for most advocacy campaigns is to get noticed; to break through the noise. This is a tough challenge. Occasional flukes, like the #icebucketchallenge, or the opportunity to newsjack (ride the waves of trending news topics) can help advocacy campaigns rise above the noise.
When we see a massive shift in social media focus from entertainment to the news, it shows us that people can get serious about momentary political issues. The challenge is to keep them engaged until policy can be changed to address those issues that got them excited for a moment. We may get very active on the tail of a Sandy Hook tragedy, for example, but unless we can capture that energy and use it to effect real policy change that addresses the tragedy's root cause, these moments of excitement will fade into history without any real impact.