(Worth 20% of your grade; due on February 17)


In just a few short years, the hashtag has become the fundamental mechanism by which contemporary online discourse is organized, searched, and archived. Your first assignment in this course is to select a hashtag (probably on Twitter, but perhaps on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, or another platform), then spend a few weeks observing and collecting the associated content and conversations. In class, we will experiment with several tools for archiving and analyzing tweets so you can identify the methods that are best suited to your hashtag. The finished products of your work will be a short essay (roughly 1,500 words) and a five-minute “lightning” presentation, both of which should be developed with the goal of helping your classmates understand the rhetorical moves at work in the conversations that use your chosen hashtag.

Completing the Assignment

Because each of you will be studying a different hashtag and perhaps using different methods to conduct your analysis, each project in our class will be unique. However, generally speaking, your work should follow a few specific steps:

  1. Select a hashtag. Before you can begin analyzing the discourse that circulates around a specific hashtag, you will need to identify several candidates and then choose the one that appears most promising. As you consider your options, try to follow the Goldilocks principle: the volume of tweets/pictures/posts shouldn’t be too small or too big, but just right. For example, studying #SOTU would prove far too complicated given our timeframe, available tools, and expertise. On the other hand, #vtride wouldn’t give you nearly enough to work with in your analysis.

  2. Collect your data. Once you have settled on a specific hashtag, begin monitoring the conversation surrounding that hashtag. Practically speaking, this means that you should be checking in several times a day and taking lots of notes about what you observe. In addition, you should save specific artifacts for use in your analysis by taking screenshots, and adding content to Storify, Evernote, or another similar service. If possible, you should find a way to automatically capture all of the content using your chosen hashtag (e.g., Martin Hawksey’s excellent TAGS tool). Depending on which hashtag you choose, the amount of time you spend collecting data will vary; however, you should aim for at least a week’s worth of content.

  3. Determine your methods of analysis. Once you have your data, you’ll need to decide how you want to analyze and interpret it. If you have a strong interest in quantitative methodologies, you might use some simple statistical analysis to make sense of the data you’ve collected. Or you might prefer a qualitative approach, using ethnographically inflected methods to tell the story of your hashtag. We will read several published examples of social media analysis, so you’ll have a chance to review various models of studying this type of data.

  4. Write it up. Your primary deliverable for this assignment is a short essay that introduces your hashtag, explains your methods for collecting and analyzing your data, interprets the data, and draws some conclusions about what you’ve observed over the course of this project. There is no exact length requirement for this paper, but aim for 1,500 words. Your essay should be scholarly in tone, but also accessible to novice social media researchers (e.g., your classmates).

  5. Share what you’ve discovered. In addition to writing your essay, you will share your findings with your classmates in a five-minute “lightning” presentation. We’ll talk about what this entails in class, but simply put, you’ll need to rapidly introduce us to your hashtag and help us understand your key findings.

Evaluation Criteria

I will evaluate your project using the following criteria:

  • Does your essay provide a succinct, yet informative introduction to the history and use of your chosen hashtag?
  • Does your essay clearly explain your methods for collecting and interpreting your data?
  • Does your essay analyze and theorize your data set rather than merely describe or summarize it?
  • Does your presentation successfully introduce your classmates to your chosen hashtag and help them understand why it matters?
  • Does your presentation effectively incorporate visual elements (especially screenshots and data displays)?
  • Do the essay and presentation meet the minimum requirements for length?
  • Does the essay adhere to the conventions of standard written English (i.e., spelling, punctuation, grammar)?