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For International Day Of The Girl, A Battle Of The Hashtags

Day of the Girl hashtags: Do they further the cause, or water down the message? i
Leif Parsons for NPR
Day of the Girl hashtags: Do they further the cause, or water down the message?
Leif Parsons for NPR

If you've checked social media today, then you probably know already — it's the International Day of the Girl.

It's a day sanctioned by the United Nations and chaired by UNICEF. It began in 2011, and this year, with a theme of "the power of the adolescent girls," it launched a flotilla of hashtags:

#GirlHero

#GirlPossible

#MyLifeAt15

#Girl4President

#withMalala

#11DaysofAction

#IAmHer

#GirlChild

#OurGirlsMatter

Each hashtag represents a project or nonprofit group that works to improve the lives of adolescent girls. And these are just a few among dozens of Day of the Girl-related digital campaigns and conversations on the web. That doesn't include the actual event hashtag #DayoftheGirl or #IDG2015. Click on any one of them and you'll be whisked away to a social feed full of photos ...

... and facts ...

... and calls to action.

"These hashtags are like the net of a fishing trawler. They're thrown out in the vast ocean of the Internet to try and catch people who may be responsive to that message," says Ed Coper, director of strategy at Corelab, an agency that runs digital campaigns for nonprofits like Oxfam, Save the Children and Global Witness.

But the question is: Are there too many tweets from too many groups? Or is it actually smart to have many different ways for the public get into the cause?

Melissa Hillebrenner, director of Girl Up, a U.N. group for girls' rights, has watched International Day of the Girl grow since its inception, when there were just one or two hashtags associated with the event.

"The abundance is a positive sign — a rising tide lifts all boats," she says. "The fact that there is a day that all these organizations, celebrities and brands can lend their voice to girls, it adds to that feeling of a bigger movement. We're also more likely to catch someone somewhere through one of these appeals."

Girl Up — which had a Day of the Girl campaign last year that brought in a record 57 million impressions — depends on the influx of social media attention the day brings. It's what Hillebrenner describes as a "movement-building moment."

"There's a lot of focus right now about girls' issues like girls' empowerment, female genital mutilation, child marriage and violence against girls," says Vivian Onano, an anti-poverty activist who works with the Africa 2.0 Foundation in South Africa. "Having a day like this helps give people a clear focus on what has been achieved so far, and a platform to work together toward solutions to issues that affect young girls."

But creating buzz on social media isn't the ultimate goal. "We never wanted to do something around Day of the Girl that was just an online-focused campaign," says Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides. "We need the offline and online actions. The number of impressions on social media is not massively useful in and of itself. That's not what's going to lead to policy change."

Click deeper into the hashtag within the 140-character tweet, and you'll find detailed campaigns rooted in real-world action. While Girls Not Brides' #MyLifeat15 hashtag, for example, asks supporters to share their hopes and dreams in a post on social media, it also asks them to call on their national leaders to adopt legislation to ban child marriage in their region. This light-heavy combination is the key to success for many campaigners looking to make the most of moments like Day of the Girl.

But the social media explosion also makes observers wonder whether separate campaigns and hashtags has a downside.

"It's confusing when you go online and you have all the different hashtags for International Day of the Girl. You don't know which is driving which campaign," says Onano. "If we have more of a coordinated campaign starting on the international level or the grassroots level with the same message, it will be stronger and won't dilute the message in the process."

The day's prolific use of hashtags also raises the question of the effectiveness of "hashtag activism," the idea that people can change the world by using a hashtag in a social media conversation.

Experts like Dr. Tilly Gurman, who has published research on the use of social media to promote global health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, say there's no evidence that hashtag campaigns actually have a real-world impact. But they do help bring the issue to a mainstream audience. "The more we hear about a topic, the more primed we are in thinking that it's an important topic," she says.

So maybe that old adage, the more the merrier, still holds true in the hashtag age.

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