Hashtags Studies and related research approaches are commonly explored on Twitter, however, in this forthcoming article André Mintz, Elaine Rabello and myself introduce an approach for hashtag engagement research on Instagram. Our paper systematises approaches which have been explored in the context of two data sprints (DMI Summer School 2017, Amsterdam; and SMART Data Sprint 2018, Lisbon) and a conference (ECREA Digital Culture Culture and Communication Section Conference, November 2017, Brighton, UK). 

On 1 June 2018, we presented our proposal at Instagram Conference 2018 – Middlesex University, London. The conference was brilliantly organised by Alessandro Caliandro – Lecturer Branding and Digital Media. Crystal Abidin and Richard Rogers gave very interesting keynote speeches (not to mention the parallel sections! see the programme and abstracts). Crystal Abidin with Tap that, Hack that, Map that:
Economies, Cultures, and Materialites of Instagram, and  Richard Rogers with Otherwise
engaged: Social Media from vanity metrics to critical analytics. 

Our abstract for the conference is copied below, as well as the presentation slides.

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Hashtags are not the whole message: Approaching Hashtag Engagement Research 

Janna Joceli Omena [1], Andre Mintz [2] and Elaine Rabello [3]

Social media research faces multiple challenges related not only to the amount of information that circulates online but also to the complexity of online activity, understood as mediated by the technicity of social media platforms, as well as by the manifold cultures of use expressed in its realm. In this scenario, the act of hashtagging serves different stakeholders and can be apprehended under different meanings and multiple orders of worth (Gerlitz 2016), such as forms of brand promotion or as expressions of social causes. Additionally,  the relationship between hashtags and other forms of grammatization (e.g. likes, images, captions, locale), as well as the affordances of web platforms should also be accounted for. This paper seeks to contribute to this matter under the perspective of repurposing the digital traces and methods in media for social and cultural research (Rogers, 2013).

Drawing the use of political hashtags as a case study, we look into a corpus of Instagram posts which were published during two opposing protests surrounding the process of impeachment-cum-coup of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, in 2016. With this, we approached hashtagging in its complexity, proposing a  three-layered perspective for hashtag led-studies on social media platforms. The first layer aims at discussing the significance of audience engagement metrics, considering the potential differences between high-visibility and ordinary uses of hashtags. The second considers hashtagging activity in its many forms – considering user’s frequency of use of the hashtag as well as non-partisan uses, which include ambiguous or critical appropriation as well as botted accounts and hashtag hijacking. Finally, observing the categorizations previously made, in the last layer we look into the texts and images of the posts, with an interest in the different meanings a hashtag acquires in its use and within the different observed categories. To that end, we experiment distant-reading methods for both verbal and visual content – through topic modelling and image classification algorithms – and discuss the apparent potentials and limitations of such approaches for understanding the modes of hashtag engagement.

This paper contributes toward rethinking hashtag led-studies and the methodological field of social media research.

Key Words: social media research, technicity, hashtagging, Instagram, political hashtags.

[1] Janna Joceli Omena is a doctoral researcher in Digital Media at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, a course that is part of UT Austin I Portugal Program. Janna is a member of ICNOVA, and researcher and lecturer at iNOVA Media Lab, where she coordinates the Digital Media Winter Institute and the SMART Data Sprint. Her research interests embrace software and platform studies, social media technicity, and digital methods. She is concerned about the inherent technicity of social media platforms and how it facilitates or compromises digital research. 

[2] André Mintz is a scholar in the fields of media studies and media art currently pursuing a PhD in the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, as a researcher of the Research Group in Intermedia Connections at the same university. He holds a joint M.A. in Media Arts Cultures from Aalborg University, Denmark; Danube University Krems, Austria; and Lodz University, Poland. He also holds a M.A. in Communication Studies from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. His current studies are funded by a scholarship from CAPES Foundation, Brazil.

[3] Elaine Teixeira Rabello is an  Associate Professor at Social Medicine Institute, State University of Rio de Janeiro, and a guest researcher at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, executive coordinator of the Social Sciences and Zika Network, Fiocruz. Psychologist, Master, and Ph.D. in Public/Collective Health. She develops research and projects about science and technology studies, production and circulation of scientific knowledge in health, health education, primary care, mental health, medicalization, qualitative methodologies and digital methods.

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