Hashtag Publics

The Power and Politics of Discursive Networks

by Nathan Rambukkana (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook X, 293 Pages
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 103


This collection investigates the publics of the hashtag. Taking cues from critical public sphere theory, contributors are interested in publics that break beyond the mainstream – in other publics. They are interested in the kinds of publics that do politics in a way that is rough and emergent, flawed and messy, and ones in which new forms of collective power are being forged on the fly and in the shadow of loftier mainstream spheres.
Hashtags are deictic, indexical – yet what they point to is themselves, their own dual role in ongoing discourse. Focusing on hashtags used for topics from Ferguson, Missouri, to Australian politics, from online quilting communities to labour protests, from feminist outrage to drag pop culture, this collection follows hashtag publics as they trend beyond Twitter into other spaces of social networking such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr as well as other media spaces such as television, print, and graffiti.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • #Acknowledgments
  • #Introduction: Hashtags as Technosocial Events
  • Theorizing Hashtag Publics
  • Chapter One: Twitter Hashtags from Ad Hoc to Calculated Publics
  • Chapter Two: From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: The Digital Intimacies of Race-Activist Hashtag Publics
  • Chapter Three: #auspol: The Hashtag as Community, Event, and Material Object for Engaging with Australian Politics
  • Chapter Four: Hashtag as Hybrid Forum: The Case of #agchatoz
  • Chapter Five: #Time
  • Hashtags and Activist Publics
  • Chapter Six: Come Together, Right Now: Retweeting in the Social Model of Protest Mobilization
  • Chapter Seven: Hashtagging the Invisible: Bringing Private Experiences into Public Debate : An #outcry against Sexism in Germany
  • Chapter Eight: Hashtags as Intermedia Agency Resources before FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil
  • Chapter Nine: #FuckProp8: How Temporary Virtual Communities around Politics and Sexuality Pop Up, Come Out, Provide Support, and Taper Off
  • Chapter Ten: More than Words: Technical Activist Actions in #CISPA
  • Art, Craft, and Pop Culture Hashtag Publics
  • Chapter Eleven: Realism against #Realness: Wu Tsang, #Realness, and RuPaul’s Drag Race
  • Chapter Twelve: Living the #Quilt Life: Talking about Quiltmaking on Tumblr
  • Chapter Thirteen: Jokin’ in the First World: Appropriate Incongruity and the #firstworldproblems Controversy
  • Chapter Fourteen: #RaiderNation: The Digital and Material Identity and Values of a Superdiverse Fan Community
  • Hashtags in Communities, Polities, and Politics
  • Chapter Fifteen: Black Twitter: Building Connection through Cultural Conversation
  • Chapter Sixteen: #BlackTwitter: Making Waves as a Social Media Subculture
  • Chapter Seventeen: The 1x1 Common: The Role of Instagram’s Hashtag in the Development and Maintenance of Feminist Exchange
  • Chapter Eighteen: Meta-Hashtag and Tag Co-occurrence: From Organization to Politics in the French Canadian Twittersphere
  • Chapter Nineteen: The Twitter Citizen: Problematizing Traditional Media Dominance in an Online Political Discussion
  • Chapter Twenty: Hashtagging #HigherEd
  • #Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

← viii | ix →



This collection came together in a whirlwind of enthusiasm from the contributors to write about the diverse political uses of the hashtag both inside and outside of Twitter as a platform. First and foremost I want to thank all of the authors, whose insights and research are what make this collection. It was my sincere pleasure and privilege to compile their work and to get to pore over all of their amazing contributions before anyone else. It is a fine honour to watch a field coalesce on your computer screen, and I was provoked and enriched by their insights on the political moments and affordances of hashtags—thanks, all of you, for your incredible and engaging work!

I would also like to thank my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier. Their professional generosity, camaraderie, and scholarly energy both inspired me to pull this project together and gave me the time and space to pursue it. In particular, my department chairs Andrew Herman and Jonathan Finn helped create and sustain a space that nourished scholarly productivity (sadly, something all too rare in these neoliberal times), and as mentor, Jeremy Hunsinger helped spread the word about this collection and helped us find a publisher.

As a collection of authors, we are very lucky in our choice of publishers and series. Peter Lang has been generous in their support of this project, and we are honoured to be a part of the field-defining Digital Formations series. In particular we would like to thank series editor Steve Jones for all of his insightful comments and guidance, and Mary Savigar and Sophie Appel for keeping us all on track. ← ix | x →

Finally, I would like to thank my friends and family, without whose patience and support I could never get anything remotely accomplished, and Zahra, without whom nothing would be worth doing.

← x | 1 →


#Introduction: Hashtags as Technosocial Events


In “On Actor-Network Theory” (1996), Bruno Latour theorizes around the fundamental ontological nature of things. From his science and technology studies perspective, he explodes the modern understanding of the social sciences as describing some form of pre-existing substance (“the social”) and drills down into and unearths their other major aspect, that which looks at the process and becomings of social forms (1996, p. 2). To do this, he draws on chaos theory and event theory, viewing order as emergent, contingent, slices in time of networks of influence in which actants—both human and nonhuman—come together in assemblages that create the things we think of as ordered: social structures, technologies, discourses, relationships, movements, concepts, personalities, behaviours, histories, even matter (1996, p. 3).

This is a big theory, a top-level theory of everything in which there is “[l]iterally nothing but networks, [and] nothing in between them” (1996, p. 4). This anentropic theory—in which orders are understood as contingent, local and emergent states of a productive and underlying chaos, a “careful plaiting of weak ties” (1996, p. 3) into stronger threads—meshes with understandings as differently situated as M-theory, a development of string theory in which even physical constants such as the speed of light and force due to gravity are understood as contingent and local expressions that might be differently articulated in other universes; and a rhizomatic understanding of social structures, in which social forms are messy and multi-filamented entities that evolve over time and situation, and ← 1 | 2 → that, as such, always escape or exceed top-down representations or abstractions (1996, p. 3)—territories that exceed their maps.

In this scheme of understanding, both social networks (in this sense, coming from the 1980s, referring to things such as gangs, unions, subcultures, ideological communities and discourse-cultures) and technical networks (things such as the electrical system, the telephone system) were both overdetermined: “possible final and stabilized state[s]” of underlying Actor-Networks that might have been ordered otherwise (1996, p. 2; emphasis in original).

This Introduction thinks through the role of hashtags as technosocial events, to use the above understanding of the nature of things, networks, and organization to think through how we can understand hashtag-mediated discursive assemblages. What are these networks—ones that we can think of as Actor-Networks comprising actants or actors that are variously individual (people crafting, deploying, amplifying, or utilizing hashtags), technological (the hardware and software that encode specific affordances around these tags through Twitter and other technologies), collective (groups or other collectivities of people), or corporate (institutions, corporations, states)? Are they communities, publics, discourses, discursive formations, dispositifs, something else? This collection argues and demonstrates that the media ecology subtended by hashtags can be any of these, as they can be drawn in to articulate with all of these organizational possibilities in different circumstances and configurations.

Eschewing a simple notion of technological determination, this collection is premised on the argument that the form and matter of these assemblages can take on different emergent qualities based on the particular actants that are at work in shaping each tag as its own unique and individual event. The performativity of such utterances makes hashtags discourse that recognizes itself as such (sometimes); an affective amplifier (sometimes); useful in linking or constituting particular publics (sometimes); and even able to subtend communities (sometimes)—depending on how it is deployed. This complexity of possible forms and dynamics taps its insight from Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism (or the conceptual division and opposition of form and matter).

In “Forme et Matière” (1995), Gilbert Simondon discusses how things—all things—take form. It is neither the essential qualities of the underlying matter, nor the shaping qualities of an applied form that dictate the final shape and nature of any material thing. He uses the metaphor of the formation of a brick to illustrate this profound but simple point. Neither the mix of components alone nor the brick mould alone is sufficient to produce a brick. A mould applied to the wrong kind of clay, or with too much liquid, or not enough, or with stones, will not produce the brick as a finished technical form (p. 38). Likewise, a mould with different qualities (size, shape, materials, porousness, rigidity, flexibility) acting on the same clay would not produce the same brick either. It is the combination of these exact ← 2 | 3 → conditions and in the right configuration—with the correct amount of time, the proper preparation, the right amount and duration of pressure, the appropriate humidity, the same procedure for filling and emptying the mould—that produces the finished thing: a brick, a piece of worked-on matter than can then be taken up as material to build further forms and structures (such as a building, a wall, a path) (p. 55). In other words, la prise de forme of a brick requires both of these and moreover a specific process—an event—to work these elements together into their ultimate shape.

According to Brian Massumi (2004), Simondon’s writing on form and matter can be usefully mobilized to think through how discourse forms and circulates. Rather than a simplistic reading that would see discourse as a mimetic reflection of human culture or a deterministic one that would see it as a top-down shaper of culture, Massumi’s mobilization posits discourse as technosocial event, shaping and shaped, forme et matière. It is the complex singularity that gains substance through its ongoing becoming; it is both medium and message.

Hashtags, as discursive assemblages, could be rendered similarly. Both text and metatext, tag and subject matter, pragmatic and metapragmatic speech act (Benovitz, 2010), hashtag-mediated discursive assemblages are neither simply the reflection of pre-existing discourse formations nor do they create them out of digital aether. Rather, they are nodes in the becoming of distributed discussions in which their very materiality as performative utterances (Sauter & Bruns, Chapter 3, this volume) is deeply implicated.

For example, there has been much discussion about the role of hashtags, as well as Twitter, Facebook, and social media broadly, in the Arab Uprisings (e.g., Papacharissi & Oliveira, 2012; Douai, 2013). While some in the public sphere go so far as to call such techno-implicated events or movements, especially with respect to Egypt, “social media revolutions,” or “the Facebook/Twitter revolution,” others are more muted in their attribution of causal force to these technologies.

In Aziz Douai’s article “‘Seeds of Change’ in Tahrir Square and Beyond” (2013), he picks apart and reframes this notion. Looking at the larger technological and human contexts of movements in and transformations of Arab societies, he shows that the technological intervention of social media activism was only the most recent iteration of concatenated changes that have been at work on the shapes of connections, knowledge production, and information circulation in these societies since satellite television started to open up these public spheres in the 1960s. Digital and other technologies, he argues, have long articulated with Arabs generally and Egyptians specifically forging a vibrant public sphere. Using any and all of videotapes and DVDs, CD-ROMs, computer media, digital still and video cameras, video games, the Internet, and the rich convergence of all media the Internet now provides (e-mail, messaging, blogging, archiving and distributions of texts, image and video sharing, video chat, and SNSs such as Facebook, ← 3 | 4 → Instagram, and Twitter), Arabs have spoken back to both state and world power, worked to expose abuses, and commented on authoritarian regimes—their own, those of neighbouring countries, and those of places such as the U.S., Europe, and Canada. He argues that, given this, not just social networking technologies but all such technologies can be argued to be potential technological seeds of change (Douai, 2013, p. 25).

At the same time, however, he argues that they would not have been put to these uses (or—to start to steer this in the direction we are interested in theoretically—they would not have been propelled to act in such ways) without a vibrant counterpublic, robust social movements, and dedicated individuals (Douai, 2013, p. 30) that comprise a parallel influence, the “social seeds of change.” These two sets of gametes cross-pollinate and influence each other—new technologies create new affordances that inspire new politics, and political uses of technologies emerge from the influence of the political imagination on a technical capability: for example, we can see both at work simultaneously in how citizen-captured video of police brutality gets spread far and wide through the technoscape (shared via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). In this example, we can return to Latour and Simondon both. The questions of “Which moves what?” becomes moot in an Actor-Network framework which would see both the technologies and the individuals as actors working to influence each other and articulate together, and Simondon would see the matter (protest of state) and form (social media) as implicated in the same event, conditioning each other in the singular encounter.

Returning to hashtags, and what they can specifically engender as actants and actors in the networks they prehend to, we can see them as pathways to an open and non-predefined set of communicative encounters and architectures, a crossroads between form and matter, medium and message entangled (see also Rambukkana, Chapter 2, this volume).

On a continuum with a derided notion of “hashtag activism” at one pole and an inflated notion of the power of “hashtag uprisings” at the other are all political hashtags and all the publics they subtend. And it truly is a continuum, of which this collection offers only a modest sampling—a snapshot, a section. Ranging from hashtags such as #isthenipplepolitical to #tahrir, from #winning to #BlackLivesMatter, from #FirstWorldProblems to #rapedneverreported, the hashtag-mediated public sphere is not one thing and resists any singular characterization. To inscribe some hashtags into the world, to instance them in ink or through digital data, could get you killed; others could get you ostracized from social spaces you frequent, or get you fired; others might do nothing whatsoever. They are a technic (which is to say, both a technique and a technology) of the social, and in their performativity are events that map together and encompass not just the tag itself but ← 4 | 5 → the network of human and nonhuman actors that come together in such configurations: tags, technologies, taggers, conversations, press coverage in other media.

As Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess argue (2011, p. 7, and Chapter 1, this volume), “To include a hashtag in one’s tweet is a performative statement: it brings the hashtag into being at the very moment that it is first articulated, and—as the tweet is instantly disseminated to all the sender’s followers—announces its existence.” Which is to say that it is a saying which is also a doing, to paraphrase Austin (1975, p. 5), an utterance that is at the same time an action. To use a hashtag is to imbue that actant with the properties of material action, to move it from the virtual to the actual, to make it an actor in its own right. To accelerate it into motion in this way, to imbue it with affect, allows it to affect in turn; it weaves it into Actor-Networks of potential new configuration. That said, Bruns and Burgess note that once this performative act happens, “the extent to which the community around the hashtag becomes more than an issue public of one depends on its subsequent use by other participants” (2011, p. 7, and Chapter 1, this volume). I agree, with two provisos. The first is that while it may be a community or a public that forms around a given tag, these are only two possibilities among many. Other configurations to which hashtags are articulated are possible—to pick a few at random: advertising campaigns, political platforms, social movements, smear campaigns, activist protests, harassment crusades,1 consumer products, and revolutions (see Figure 1.1). Not all hashtags have politics, create publics, or maintain communities, in other words. But some can, and some do. The obverse is also true: just because one hashtag does not articulate to a greater movement, community, or politics, it does not mean another might not. A hollow hashtag public around a tag such as #yolo does not negate the force around #Ferguson or #outcry (see Rambukkana, Chapter 2, and Antinakis-Nashif, Chapter 7, this volume).

As with Simondon’s brick that inherits its singular nature neither from the clay poured nor from the mould applied but from both—from the event of their combination, the process of their application to each other, the sequence and specific method of their admixture—hashtag-mediated assemblages inherit their character neither solely from the social material poured into them nor from their specific nature as technology or code alone but from the singular composition of each tag in their “continuous locality” (Latour, 1996, p. 6): in how they are crafted; for what purpose; among what other actants and actors, individual, technical, communal or corporate; as well as in what spaces, through what technologies, with what coverage; and finally articulated with which effects, with what temporality, and through which history. Hashtags, as a form of digital intimacy, are a way that things in the world touch other things in the world and form networks with them; they are multiple, open-ended, and contingent phenomena. ← 5 | 6 →


Figure 1.1. Hashtags on consumer products (image credit: Alina Murad, 2015).


The first section of the collection, “Theorizing Hashtag Publics,” takes a panoramic view of some of the theoretical issues that attend the intersection of hashtags and the political. Covering governmental politics, industrial politics, the politics of representation, and the temporality of discourse, these papers run the gamut of levels of hashtag engagement and explore the deep theory and history of the hashtag.

The section begins with an updated version of Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess’s field-defining study on hashtags as “ad hoc publics” that goes on to consider the increasingly calculated nature of the publics that hashtags are conceived to collect. With public reflections on Australian leadership spills as an object, this chapter—cited by the vast majority of the other chapters in the collection—defined the possible contours of hashtag community and public sphere engagement and, in this new version, complicates the picture with a read on where algorithmic logic and curated and commodified hashtags bring us. Nathan Rambukkana’s paper further theorizes the political potential of hashtag publics, focusing on loud and angry ← 6 | 7 → protest publics such as #RaceFail and #Ferguson. He looks at how the energy of race-activist hashtags can spill over into other mediated spheres and other publics, affecting popular culture representations, the publishing and broadcasting industries, fan cultures, and discourse about race and representation broadly. Theresa Sauter and Axel Bruns continue the top-down investigation of the politics of hashtags through exploring #auspol, the major meta-hashtag appended to discussions of Australian politics. Investigating who uses this tag and how the discussions draw users into a particular kind of public sphere engagement—one that is even observed by some as an aggregate vox Twitteratorum—is informative for looking at hashtags as a political technology broadly. From top-down Australian politics, we move to bottom-up Australian politics, with Jean Burgess, Anne Galloway, and Theresa Sauter’s exploration of the uses of #agchatoz, a tag used by Australian farmers and interested parties discussing agricultural issues. Tags such as this and similar ones for other regions create the possibility of broad discursive channels for discussing the grounded and embodied politics of particular professions both within and across geographical regions. In the last paper in this section, Daniel Faltesek does a deep reading of the temporality of the hashtag, leaving us with a series of important questions: How do hashtags create a sense of sequence, of event, of history? How can we distinguish true hashtag publics from the “false publics” of neoliberalism and political rhetoric? How might thinking of hashtagged discourse as unmediated by technology and covert intentionalities be dangerous?


X, 293
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Social media media power tumblr twitter
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 293 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Nathan Rambukkana (Volume editor)

Nathan Rambukkana (PhD, Concordia University) is Assistant Professor in Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. His work centers on the study of discourse, politics, and identities, and his research addresses topics such as hashtag publics, digital intimacies, intimate privilege, and non/monogamy in the public sphere.


Title: Hashtag Publics
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