Hashing out the tags on Ferguson

Jack Blog

April 8th, 2015 By Joe Panepinto PhD


What does the dramatically different use of #Ferguson on Twitter & Instagram tell us? The Pew Research Center just released results of a study on the use of hashtags about Ferguson and the findings are pretty stark. Most conversations on Twitter with #Ferguson were about incidents in the town and the news surrounding them; on Instagram, #Ferguson posts were about broader issues of racism and inequality.


So what should we take away from this? As I always tell my students—data never speaks for itself. Off the top of my head, there are 2 possible explanations – neither of which is particularly clear given the data we have:

  1. Instagram & Twitter users are dramatically different. This could be. Twitter is much more well-established than Instagram—especially among mainstream media outlets, almost all of which have several handles and use the network to amplify and comment on the day’s hottest news. So the imbalance is the result of a different population posting.
  2. Instagram & Twitter users see the networks as having dramatically different purposes. This could be as well. We segment our communication communities (onlineand off), so it wouldn’t be surprising if the same people use the different networks to communicate different messages to different audiences about the same things.

In all likelihood it’s a combination of both—a difference in user base and perception of purpose that is skewing the usage of the hashtag so dramatically. What’s clear, though, is that while we might identify and see a difference, it takes a bit more thinking and analysis to understand what that difference actually means.