Quantifying Collective Identity Online From Self-defining Hashtags

Alexander T. J. Barron, Johan Bollen

Mass communication over social media can drive rapid changes in our sense of collective identity. Hashtags in particular have acted as powerful social coordinators[1], playing a key role in organizing social movements like the Gezi park protests, Occupy Wall Street, #metoo, and #blacklivesmatter[2, 3, 4]. Here we quantify collective identity from the use of hashtags as self-labels in over 85,000 actively-maintained Twitter user profiles spanning 2017-2019. Collective identities emerge from a graph model of individuals’ overlapping self-labels, producing a hierarchy of graph clusters. Each cluster is bound together and characterized semantically by specific hashtags key to its formation. We define and apply two information-theoretic measures to quantify the strength of identities in the hierarchy. First we measure collective identity coherence to determine how integrated any identity is from local to global scales. Second, we consider the conspicuousness of any identity given its vocabulary versus the global identity map. Our work reveals a rich landscape of online identity emerging from the hierarchical alignment of uncoordinated self-labeling actions.

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