Entrepreneur & Activist, Suey Park, Discusses Digital Activism Ahead of Her SMW Chicago Event

Social Media Week

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This is part of a series featuring Q&As with Social Media Week Chicago speakers and panelists

Suey Park is a writer, public speaker, and digital media expert residing in Chicago, Illinois. She has trended over 3 dozen hashtags for various advocacy campaigns and speaks nationally and internationally on the topics of social justice and virality. Read her full bio here.

1. What do you think motivates people to participate in social change/justice hashtags?

SP: Although there’s the idea that internet activism is “slacktivism”, I believe change can happen in many ways. One of those ways is as simple as influencing people in your personal network. A lot of people are unwilling to hear about an idea that challenges their worldview, but if it comes from someone they know and care about they are more likely to grow. When we think of activists, we tend to think of leaders who had decade long careers in activism. These people are great! But I also think it’s easy to have the attitude of “there’s nothing I can do to make a difference.” People are really drawn to the idea of creating change and being part of a larger movement–doing what they can with what they have.

2. How did you come to choose the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick?

SP: I had been criticizing the representation of Asian Americans for a while and felt like my campaigns weren’t having the reach they could have. I wanted to run a campaign that would have a global reach with low cost (it actually had no cost) and saw how #blacktwitter in particular became a huge cultural force. I wanted to create a space for Asian Americans to have a conversation on race, and hashtags are a way to archive and contain a conversation between many people. The reason I chose #NotYourAsianSidekick as opposed to something like #AsianAmericanActivism or #AsianAmericanFeminism is because I wanted it to be accessible to young people and also to people who might not be interested in activism or feminism.

#NotYourAsianSidekick doesn’t come across as too literal or too academic, but as something punchy and heroic. A lot of high schoolers emailed me saying they saw the hashtag an immediately knew what it was about. People can more easily identify what they aren’t before they can articulate what they are, so #NotYourAsianSidekick plays to that sort of politics of negation. Choosing a hashtag or stating what you are #not is much easier than what comes after all that (which I’ll talk about more during the presentation)!

3. Digital activism often invites opposition, trolls, criticism and bullies. How can you diffuse the situation while still remaining true to your beliefs?

SP: I used to be one of those tough as nails “any means necessary” kind of people, but the amount of backlash I experienced after #CancelColbert in particular really left me fundamentally changed. For a long time, I thought it ended my career. I lived in the shame and humiliation not realizing I could change the narrative. It was really important for me to realize that what I was doing wasn’t working anyway; that I can bless the knowledge, but curse the lesson. This chapter of digital activism was a great learning experience, but it’s the sort of experience that meant to be short-lived. I felt addicted to the internet, addicted to controversy, and addicted to arguing. It was unhealthy and unproductive. I believe in a lot of the same things as I used to, but I’ve changed my tactics.

When it comes to social issues, it’s important to know where you stand. However, there are a lot of other beliefs we also need to hold true in order to function well in this world of differences. So I started pushing myself to hold beliefs such as “institutional racism exists” which beliefs like “I believe people do the best they can with what they have” or “treat people better than how you’ve been treated” and the world started to make sense again. Then you get to more nuanced and compassionate beliefs like “I believe institutional racism exists, but that I should treat people kindly regardless of their ignorance, skin color, or privilege.” It’s all about being able to layer multiple belief systems without holding any specific one with too much rigidity. The best way to diffuse a situation is to change your own thinking and your own approach. This has to come before trying to change the world.

4. How can the effectiveness of digital activism be measured?

SP: There are of course metrics you can pull to measure reach. For example, #NotYourAsianSidekick made 95.8 million impressions with 50,000 contributed tweets in 72 hours, trending globally and reaching 60 different countries. For more targeted campaigns such as #HowIMetYourRacism, which I started after “How I Met Your Mother” had yellow face in an episode, I would say the effectiveness was measured simply by the network apologizing within an hour of the hashtag launching.

In my opinion, though I’m clearly biased, these hashtags served there purpose and I see far less examples of anti-asian sentiments in the media, as well as much more representation of Asian Americans in the media, on television, etc. Talking back and holding institutions is so important, and it’s easy to do when there’s so many Asian Americans online using social media. It’s all about synthesizing that power into a targeted effort. I’ve moved on from digital activism, but I’d like to think it served at least a small purpose in making change.

5. What is your favorite hashtag campaign?

SP: Oh that would have to be #NotYourRaisinSidekick. I’m in love with puns. I always say that puns are the purest form of humor. An example is: “When you ‘complimented’ my parents’ English and said it was berry berry good. #NotYourRaisinSidekick” My second favorite was #ActivistPickupLines. An example is: “Are you down for the struggle AND the snuggle? #ActivistPickupLines” But to be honest I haven’t really been paying attention to hashtag campaigns lately.

Suey Park will present her keynote “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Social Media Lessons From an Outspoken Activist” at SMW Chicago. To learn more about the keynote and to purchase your pass, click here. Check back later this week for more speaker Q&As!

Jordan Troy

Junior Account Executive, JTPR

Jordan joined Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications (JT) after completing an eight-month internship at the firm. She has experience conducting strategic research and grassroots outreach, assisting in event planning and management, and providing media relations for clients. She contributes to work on a variety of clients including After School Matters, the Chicago Innovation Exchange at the University of Chicago, Midtown Educational Foundation, One Million Degrees and the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

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