Originally posted on my blog, pH: public History basics on acid.
Although sites like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Auschwitz, Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, and Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) may be quiet, visitors are tweeting away. In the process of exploring the world of Twitter for my class assignment this week, I recalled an article documenting photos taken at concentration camps and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, posted on Twitter or Instagram, and accompanied by often downright offensive hashtags. Even the milder photos (by milder I mean that no one was smiling, jumping inappropriately on the memorial, or doing a thumbs up) took on an offensive and often ignorant tone when accompanied with hashtags like #chillin in #dachau, #beautiful, #Nice #Life, #Yolocaust, #Fantastic #Perfect #country, #hungry #and #cold, and #missing #this. How do hashtags change the meaning and tone of photos, especially those taken at sites of conscience?
On one of my first days in Siem Reap, Cambodia last year, I visited Wat Thmei, where a stupa holds the bones of some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. My tuk-tuk driver waited patiently and watched me from the shade as I looked at the stupa and I took a few pictures. As I was getting ready to leave, he pointed to my camera and told me that he would take my photo in front of the stupa. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of taking a touristy shot in front of the bones of those killed under Pol Pot’s oppressive regime, so I politely refused. He insisted and said that it would be no problem and it would be a beautiful picture. Not yet accustomed to resisting persistent tuk-tuk drivers, I agreed. He said, “smile!” and counted to three.
Unlike the Twitter users featured in the article, hashtags didn’t accompany my photo. I didn’t even post it on facebook. Would my picture read differently if I had posted it on Twitter with hashtags?
Because this is the internet (aka the land of inflammatory and extreme examples), I decided to investigate the how people use hashtags in relation to sites of conscience for myself using hashtags like #holocaustmemorial, #auschwitz, #killingfields, #khmerrouge, and #tuolsleng.
Fortunately, I didn’t come across anything as offensive as mentioned in the article that has been posted in the past couple of weeks. I even came across one tweet against selfies at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:
Most posters commenting on Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek thoughtfully reflected on the genocide that had taken place there. #auschwitz mostly focused on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27th), which is the day Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, and featured historic photos and links to articles. Most of the additional hashtags were relevant and appropriate.
Despite the vast improvement from the original article, exploring photos of sites of conscience still raised questions about the use of hashtags. I think it is important to think about the meaning that the hashtag has taken on. “#Hashtag” with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake makes fun of the overuse of hashtags and reflects how casually they are thrown about. Hashtags aren’t serious – they are often used for humor and sarcasm. There are clearly limits to what can be expressed with hashtags. One picture of the Killing Tree at Choeung Ek is accompanied by #killingfields #history #cambodia #sosad. Given the prior three hashtags, I believe #sosad is meant in earnest, but when I read it to myself, it sounds sarcastic. Is it better to express feelings like these through something other than hashtags? Can hashtags be used to express genuine emotion? Or should we restrict hashtags strictly to subject matter?
#MuseumSelfie was trending earlier this week. Do museum selfies taken at sites of conscience or at exhibits with sensitive subjects take on a different meaning than the fun, carefree hashtag implies? Are there spaces where museum selfies are never appropriate? Is it the site that makes a difference? Or the hashtag(s)? Or both?
People will always react in different ways to sites of conscience. Even if the physical site encourages a quiet reflection rather than a vocal dialogue, Twitter provides an outlet for visitors to voice their reactions. Despite the potential limitations of hashtags, visitors will and should continue tweeting. As so aptly put by Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five,“Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like Poo-tee-weet?”