Hashtag Culture and the Death of Leadership

When Kit was alive I used to brag about her a lot. (I still do now, but more discretely.) For instance, I loved telling people that she had more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, with which I would contrast my own paltry number: 164. It made me laugh, and I enjoyed the imbalance, partly because I was so proud of her, but also because I found my own Twitter profile so absurd. Who would want to follow me anywhere?

In the new Twitter/Facebook/Instagram social media matrix, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, people don’t follow leaders, they follow influencers. Influencers are determined by how many followers they have, which, of course, may be eventually monetized through advertising, subscriptions, a Netflix series or other revenue triggers. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leaned into it hard this week, ramping up her followers when she wore her #TaxTheRich dress to the Met Gala then immediately began selling #TaxTheRich t-shirts ($27) and hoodies ($58).

We’ve become a nation of followers. We follow influencers, polls, TV series, celebrities, and most of all, trends. Unconsciously, we follow algorithms, allowing them to substitute for individual and informed choice. We navigate this new matrix with little things called hashtags, which allow us to become very efficient followers, curating content relevant to our interests and ignoring the rest.

In this new hashtag culture, we follow people — #NickiMinaj, #DonaldTrump, #AOC. We follow spontaneously erupting movements — #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #OccupyWallStreet. Or we follow events — the first recorded hashtag was used by Nate Ridder in 2007 when wildfires were threatening San Diego and he posted under #SanDiegoOnFire. At its most benign, hashtag culture simply connects us to people and content that are interesting or make us feel good. For instance, here are the top 30 hashtags on Instagram in 2021.

Please follow me!

But hashtags like #Qanon, #Conservative or #LiberalMajority drive us into corners and rabbit holes from which we may never find our way back to the center. Worse, hashtag culture can become toxic, as the Wall Street Journal reported in a week-long series exposing how Facebook and Instagram knowingly damage the mental health and self-esteem of teenage girls.

OK, sorry, it’s #SaturdayAfternoon and I’m taking too long to get to the point, which is: in this new follower culture of personalities, trends, movements and hashtags, we’ve lost the art of leadership. If everybody’s a follower, who’s left to lead?

There’s a leadership deficit today, driven by two big things. First, we’ve seen over and over again that leaders have feet of clay. From politics to the arts, the military, the academy, even the purified air of nonprofits, we’ve seen leaders topple for the basest of reasons: hubris, duplicity, lust, greed. Second, we’ve become so tribalized by identity politics that it’s become impossible to find a leader that bridges the divides. So we’ve been reduced to a nation of followers. Without leaders, we simply follow things that confirm our likes and desires, validate our thinking, or provide a sense of community.

Leadership, of course, is about forward momentum — getting people from here to there. Leadership requires consensus, and a sense of mission. The last time we had that kind of leadership was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Then it slowly unraveled, undone by a financial collapse, racial injustice, a pandemic and, most of all, hashtag culture — the ability to segregate ourselves into like-minded pods. And in this culture, we’re fearful we might say the wrong thing and get ridiculed or canceled — not a conducive environment for leadership.

In fact, one of the central objectives in hashtag culture is to control your narrative. Sometimes this involves fabrication, but more often it just involves selective disclosure to achieve the ends you want. Instagram and TikTok are filled with these kinds of selective disclosures to create personalities that likely bear little resemblance to the people they are in real life. This disconnect is what drives a lot of the angst and depression among teen-age Instagram users, as reported in the Journal. In politics, controlling the narrative is sacrosanct. Politicians always bend the truth, of course, but today they twist truth into a pretzel. So much so that Trump continues to insist on a “stolen election” and Biden describes the Afghan withdrawal debacle as the greatest airlift in history. “Eager to Shift Narrative, Biden Team Puts Airlift in Historical Context,” ran the New York Times headline. The self-aggrandizing was almost too much to bear.

That’s not to say there aren’t some leaders out there with the courage to speak the truth, even if it might be unpopular. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, didn’t mince words about the Texas abortion law when he offered to pay the moving expenses of employees who wanted to leave the Lone Star state. And Joe Manchin isn’t afraid to challenge his party’s orthodoxy, although it’s a very thin tightrope he’s walking that could be easily pulled out from under him by those Dark Lords of political manipulation — Pelosi, McConnell or Schumer. My advice to Sen. Manchin: keep your focus on the destination and do not look down!

These, however, are isolated incidents. Leadership at scale requires a more sustained commitment — an open mind, respect, transparency and humility. Leadership is not about scolding or ridiculing people (remember the “deplorables?”). It is about educating and elevating people, as Tocqueville noted in “Democracy in America.” It is not about likes, or followers, or retweets or polls. Leadership is about drawing people into the radical center, a place of diversity, compromise and resolution. Leadership is made up of the kind of courage and grace and humility that Lincoln demonstrated. And leadership is about patience and tolerance, values that are antithetical to the hashtag culture.

You can be sure that right now in the White House, Congress and social media companies there are people who spend their day parsing trending hashtags to inform their respective strategies; they are focused not on leading, but on controlling the narrative. At the same time, I’m confident there are people we haven’t heard from yet who are quietly thinking and talking about authentic leadership and what it will take to get people back to the radical center in this country. I hope they hurry up. We’re ready for it.

2 comments

  1. Russ I hope CEO’s (like Marc Benioff) keep their nose out of politics. There stance is not needed and putting himself as an influencer on his employees on a social ethical & religious stance is plain wrong! He’s like the Hollywood crowd “look at me I’m a big name so listen to what I have to say” .

Leave a Reply to cotobob Cancel reply