#community: Hashtags generate a sense of belonging

Download: Hashtags generate a sense of belonging


This paper explores how hashtags are used on social media as a kind of textual signpost signifying aspects of our identity. Through these signposts users alert others to their emotions, thoughts and affiliations, all of which help generate a sense of belonging to something online. From its beginnings as a searchable piece of metadata, hashtags help others find others beyond their own circle of friends to discover a collective of similar ideas from an audience which now existed beyond their friends list. Following a political debate with the addition of a hashtag can signify to others your personal views on current events and signify to others your desire to be involved in the conversation. A hashtag can be used to express an individual experience and generate feelings of solidarity between users. A hashtag can perform the role of impression management through self-presentation. Hashtags, when taken collectively, add cultural value to a conversation. For contemporary social media users, hashtags are multidimensional and have evolved into ways of building both strong and weak ties with others, signifying a desire to be part of and belong to the community.

Keywords – hashtag, social networking sites, Facebook, instagram, community, identity 


It is hard to visit a social media network today without noticing appended hashtags. From what were originally intended as a means for categorising Twitter content, hashtags today have defined political movements, become markers signifying support for a cause, use as an opiniated expression and can even be used as trigger to add an item to a shopping cart. Publishing personal thoughts, pictures, comments on public events, cultural taste etc., on social media sites is a new form of identity building in individualist societies (Aguiton & Cardon, 2007). From its very beginnings, in a social media context, Twitter users employed hashtags to organise and categorise their tweets, making reading the Twitter feed a more productive task. Hashtags did this by helping users scan for the tweets that contain particular hashtags on subjects and ignoring the tweets that were not important or as relevant (Pandell, 2017). A few years later Twitter made improvements to the hashtag functionality with the addition of hyperlinks. A hyperlinked hashtag grouped all Tweets with that specific hashtag into a single page of search results (Rao, 2009). An evolution was unfolding. Individuals now had a means for tagging personal thoughts on content and events. The searchable hashtag functionality was essentially a paradigm shift from simple categorisation to something which made it possible for social media users to discover a collective of similar ideas from an audience which now existed beyond their friends list. For contemporary social media users, hashtags are multidimensional and have evolved into ways of building both strong and weak ties with others, signifying a desire to be part of and belong to the community.

The integration of hashtags into conversations on Twitter is a useful communication tool. A diverse spectrum of global Twitter users are discoverable through a connected network of conversational threads grouped together by a hashtag (Zappavigna, 2015). Other leading social network sites followed suit with Instagram incorporating support for hashtags in January 2011 (Introducing Hashtags on Instagram, 2011) and Facebook’s hashtag rollout starting in 2013 – which it claimed was implemented to help users participate in public conversations by discovering “some of the interesting discussions people are having about public events, people, and topics” (Lindley, 2013). Users were assigning their own meaningful hashtags to their content rather than being assigned by the social media platform. This creates a social ‘folksonomy’. A folksonomy that evolves through social media describes how people tag posts using their own vocabulary to add explicit meaning (Vander Wal, 2007). As a linguistic device, hashtags serve multiple purposes, from grouping together content on topics to explaining a user’s emotional state. For example, on Instagram, a popular social media site for sharing images, a user could post a picture of a home cooked meal and add the hashtags “#GlutenFree”, “#nailedIt” and “#epicFail”. Each of these tags informs us different particulars about the user. One is a physical trait of the meal, being gluten free, the other two can be tied to modern memes and personal emotions. They identify how the user feels about their cooking skills. While the first hashtag is a searchable categorisation, the addition of the second and third hashtag may serve no other function than to indicate the emotional state of the user. This use of the hashtag in this form is performing the role of impression management through self-presentation. For other users, reading the hashtag may generate an emotional response. This creates an interpersonal bond, linking together the users (Zappavigna, 2015). The use of hashtags as a form of self-presentation online, is a communicative method of creating a connection online with many users, generating a sense of community.

Erving Goffman (1971) proposed that interpersonal relationships and identity are constructed by the individual as a performance of carefully crafted management of impressions. Online, and particularly through social media, we curate our stream of personal information by choosing which image we are going to post or which situation we want to have our say about – and hashtags provide a linguistic tool to add meaning to what we share. In the article ‘Towards a Sociological Understanding of Social Media: Theorizing Twitter’, Dhiraj Murthy (2012) describes the textual conventions employed by users to portray meaning, these include emojis and textual cues. As an identity performance, these textual cues could also be extended to the hashtag (Levine, 2014). Given the limitations of character space in a tweet, or misinterpretation of an image, social media posts may give off an unintended or accidental impression. This can be somewhat managed using a directed and purposeful hashtag attached to a post.  Taking the example of the person’s Instagram picture of a failed cooking attempt, at first glance, the image itself may give the impression that the user is proud of their cooking attempt as they have posted it and shared it for the world to see. However, the addition of the #nailedit hashtag is a self-deprecating cue with implied meaning that they may not be taking their attempt too seriously (Know Your Meme, 2011). Current online social media platforms allow users to play with and manipulate the way people perceive their identity (Iqani & Schroeder, 2016). In times past, before Web 2.0 and the interactive web, identity issues such as race, sexual orientation, economic standing or religion were constructed by our physical relationships and crafted under a set of constrained circumstances (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008). Today our identity can be explored online without ever meeting similar people face-to-face (Williams, 2008). Hashtags are a way to convey aspects our identity online as we seek out others who have identified themselves in a similar form online. For example, social media sites like Instagram provide opportunities for us to create a persona that may or may not match our real-life persona or what other might see in a face-to-face meeting. In some instances, these social media sites offer us an opportunity to create multiple accounts with each with different personas and each a performance with the opportunity of reaching different and unique audiences.

A hashtag can be used to signify a sense of belonging. Taken as a form of metadata attached to a post, a hashtag becomes searchable criteria for users across the globe and a single hashtag may serve different or multiple purposes. This multidimensional aspect of the hashtag can signify a person’s interest in a topic as well as signifying to others their involvement in the community of users who are also using the same hashtag (Zappavigna, 2015). For example, users following the political debate in Australia may choose to use the hashtag #AUSPOL to signify they are interested in a particular candidate or political movement, at the same time signifying to others that they wish to be involved in the political discussion. In a recent study, Vaccari, Chadwick, & Loughlin (2015) found that users who use this practice are often highly educated and signifying to others that they have a distinct interest in politics. This is a very public display of their preferences and can be used as a method of identity profiling (Vaccari et al., 2015). In a similar fashion, the use of hashtags can not only signify a person’s preferences, but also reflect their motives and reasons to feel part of a community (Porter, 2015). This is evident through activism or protest hashtags. Similarly, the Occupy movement during the 2000s, which began as a physical protest on Wall Street to demonstrate the growing differences between the wealthiest citizens of the United States and the rest of the country (Gibson, 2013). Online, through social media networks, the movement spread to more cities across the United States and globally as a larger social movement and people identified themselves as participants in this movement using the #occupy hashtag. This hashtag was then used to signify a user’s geographic identity through the addition of their city, often appended to the hashtag, for example #occupySydney. It has been demonstrated that the use of these hashtags had created a personal connection with participants at physical locations and through the network of online users in other parts of the world (Croeser & Highfield, 2014). Similarly, and most recently on social media, the popularity of the hashtag #MeToo has been used to express an individual experience and at the same time generate feelings of solidarity between users who have experienced sexual harassment or violence (Davis and Zarkov, 2018). Friedman and McAdam (1992) state that expressing a desire to partake in a collective social movement is akin to attaching a desire to assume the traits of that movement in one’s personal identity. Therefore, it could be seen that by attaching a hashtag to a social media post, signifying a connection with a cause or political movement, is publicly signifying the desire to be recognised as part of the collective identity traits of that group or community.

The introduction of mobile technology to the home environment has enabled their use while participating in other activities, for example watching television while simultaneously tweeting. Television has traditionally provided the starting point for conversations with peers, friends and family. Mobile technology and online social media applications shift the communication boundaries from these traditional close personal ties to an audience that exist beyond conventional face-to-face ties. Katz, Rice, Acord, Dasgupta and David (2004) found that the informal nature of online conversation, as often realised through social media, promotes the opportunity for people who want to share their opinions with others who they may not have close personal relations. Technology is being used in this way to support the formation of online communities who are bound together by a shared interest (Wellman & Gulia, 1999). Ties within the group are strengthened as everyone participating by tagging their post with a common hashtag benefit through extended and varied conversations (Katz et al., 2004). Today many discussions online via social media involve the practice of participating in live televised events through comments or posts on social media (Vaccari et al., 2015). Event-specific hashtags, for example a named live event or television show title, have provided viewers new methods of following conversations about televised content in real time. Engaging with content by following a hashtag is providing a shared viewing experience between users who would have previously not had the means to communicate with each other. For example, during the recent broadcast of the Olympic Games in London, communities of users on social media posted their frustration and disappointment in the televised coverage with the use of the hashtag #NBCFail. O’Hallarn and Shapiro’s (2014) analysis of the use of this hashtag showed that the use of this hashtag created an instant and live shared experience for the participants. The use of event specific hashtags during televised events ties these people together under a singular commonality. Many reasons exist for individuals to feel the need to participate in online discussions, including enjoyment, self-expression and self-identity (Porter, 2015). There is supporting evidence to show that users who are participating, by sharing their opinions and reactions on broadcasts, desire to be part of a larger community, however, these connections may not be as meaningful as physical real-world connections (Wohn & Na, 2011). Their insincerity and looseness may fool the user into believing that they belong to something greater (Kats et al, 2006). Aguiton and Cardon (2007) describe users who contribute and engage in online communities in this way are creating ‘weak’ connections. None the less, these weak connections represent opportunities for people to share their thoughts and emotions on topics and ways to express their identity amongst others who are also freely sharing their opinions. All users benefit in this community, as taken collectively, individual contributions add cultural value to a conversation when the conversation is viewed as a whole (Bennet, 2012). To this extent, collectively these hashtaged posts are a social commodity, given freely, which strengthen social ties and increase feelings of connectedness – which are foundation feelings to belonging (Kats et al., 2004). By tagging a post with a hashtag these weak connections bind users together socially to support feelings of belonging.

Social media continue to play a large part in the formation of communities online. A single hashtag can evoke similar feelings and emotional ties between users. A hashtag can generate a sense of empowerment through social activism, or a hashtag can simply make you feel as if you are part of a larger conversation by sharing your opinion with other users. Whether targeted or casually added to a social media post, hashtag use signifies to other users an intention or motive. Grouped together, under a single hashtag, individual social media posts provide combined cultural value. The evolution of the hashtag, from a way to categorise posts to one that binds similar users together from across the globe, the hashtag continues to create communities online by binding users together.


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11 thoughts on “#community: Hashtags generate a sense of belonging

  1. I too am interested in the way tagging connects people within social networks, and across the internet, Murray. In 2015, Coppélie Cocq wrote about the use of the hashtag #åarjel to connect speakers of South Sámi, an indigenous and endangered language from Sweden. The hashtag was used in multiple ways – to revitalise language, as a political statement, and to position oneself as part of something bigger. An act of empowerment whichever way I look at it.

    A protest tag such as #metoo connects geographically disparate people with a shared experience; however, Cocq makes the point that for “geographically localized minority groups, a Twitter network is very likely to overlap to a great extent with an already existing offline network” (p. 277). The choice of tag connects individuals, who may already be connected in an offline community, and acts (as you say) as a signal of personal and group identity.

    Cocq, C. (2015). Indigenous voices on the web: Folksonomies and endangered languages. The Journal of American Folklore, 128, 273-285. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jamerfolk.128.509.0273

    1. Hi Sarah, thank you for taking the time to read my paper.

      The use of the hashtag by individuals to signify that they are a part of, or wish to be part of, something bigger was such an interesting topic to research. I myself have used hashtags to seek out fellow local greyhound rescuers and we have formed a small community sharing information on local businesses who are dog friendly. Even my local pub has got in on the action and followed my greyhound’s Instagram account.

      The #MeToo hashtag is a particularly interesting one and I would love to do more research on hashtags in the future. Reason being is I think this hashtag in particular has been “over-popularised”. Doing a search for it on a platform like Instagram returns some very interesting image results. To me it looks like there is now a proportion of people who are just attaching the #MeToo tag to posts which have no apparent relevance to any actual campaign. Maybe some businesses add popular hashtags to their posts in the hope of generating more views. I’m not sure what the use of hashtags in this way actually says about them. – M

  2. Hi Murray, The #hashtag certainly categorises and organises!
    As an aside from your interesting discussion about #hashtag, identity performance and community formation online, I found your paper illuminating from the perspective of its backgrounded detail. Most particularly, how the advent of the #hashtag and its inclusion of hyperlinks are examples of user-led improvements to social media sites, and how users manipulate and use the hastag in different ways, like folksonomies, to express themselves. This interestingly demonstrates how the people who use the technology rather than solely the site creators, adapt and shape online technology tools to make SNS more useful and friendly for the users. Wonderful! Regards, Alice.

    1. Hi Alice, Thanks for taking the time to read my paper. I like the connection you’ve made there on how the users of a platform can be the ones who shape the platform. Recently a new social platform launched called Vero. It was created to take on Instagram because users of instagram believe they are not being listened to by the developers… Users constantly argue for a return to a time based feed rather than a feed where the algorithms decide what they “think” you would want to see first. Vero had an amazing number of signups recently when word spread through Instagram that Vero listened to its users and committed to the platform remaining a chronological feed. It’s hard to effect a big player like Instagram, but no popular platform is infallible (MySpace for example).

      1. Hi Murray
        Thanks for your reply. I will look into Vero. Always good to listen to users – they enhance the culture of the site. Hope you have enjoyed the conference. Alice.

  3. #AwesomePaper #HighDistinction #PeopleThatWriteEntireSentencesAreReallyAnnoying

    I really enjoyed your paper Murray and the evolution of hashtag use in social media has been fascinating to watch. People that remember the days of IRC know that the #hash symbol was used to create and identify “chat channels” (essentially a new window to chat in). It was a way of grouping people that wanted to talk about a particular topic or shared a common identity, so for Twitter to adopt it was a very natural progression and someone like me that keeps #auspol open in a column of its own, uses Twitter like one giant IRC room.
    The key takeaway point from your paper (for me) is the ‘social folksonomy’ and the way the tag has further evolved to express emotion. What started out as a way for a computer to identify a tagged command to open a new window, has become part of our everyday computer mediated language #TrueStory #LoveYourWork #StillAnnoying

    1. Hi Barbara, It was so funny that I was actually trying to connect to UnderNet on IRC as I was reading your comment… Apparently some of us still remember (and use) it! I have a friend who writes whole sentences for hashtags, they are often incredibly self-deprecating and humorous, but also incredibly annoying for me trying to figure out where each word start and end sometimes. It’s become endearing now.

  4. Hi Murray, really loved your paper – engaging, easy to read and very informative. It’s fascinating how hashtags hold incredible power on social, political and racial issues within society and can create systematic change (positive and negative) within our culture – think #MeToo and #MAGA (Trump’s distructive Make America Great Again slogan). It’s so true that hashtags create communities and provide individuals with a sense of belonging and togetherness with like-minded people. However, do you think in some instances an almost ‘pack mentality’ can arise and cause detrimental harm to communities in the ‘real world’ (like #MAGA)? I think the power and influence social media platforms play in society now, is remarkable. I have a similar paper over in the Social Network’s stream on Twitter’s influence in social change movments if you’re interested. Great work!

    1. Hi Peggy – I’ve finally had the chance to read through your paper. Great read and I ca see how there were many crossovers between our papers. Have made some additional comments over on your paper.

  5. Hi Murray,
    I found your paper incredibly interesting and your argument well presented. The concept you present, that hashtags create virtual bridges of connection in a Web 2.0 environment, was of interest to me. That by utilising hashtags, sub-communities of sorts which are based in mutual interest, develop within the communities of constructed online platforms.
    I find it fascinating, that by simply grouping the comments or thoughts of like minded individuals with a word and a symbol in a virtual environment, the voice of the many is able to influence society as a collective.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read my paper Myra. I definitely agree that our participation and engagement on social media can influence society as a whole as you say. I’m also wondering how many voices are added to conversations and never really heard, or added just to be part of a bigger conversation with no real conviction or real desire to actually be part of it. Kind of like just “jumping on the bandwagon”.

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