The Effects of Instagram Hashtags on Social Capital and Online Civic Engagement

The Effects of Instagram Hashtags on Social Capital and Online Civic Engagement

Eun Jeong Lee (Texas State University, San Marcos, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJICST.2017010104
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This article applies social capital frameworks to examine the effects of Instagram hashtag use on heterogeneous and homogeneous networks as well as online civic engagement. Using an online survey of college students (N = 193), the results revealed that using Instagram hashtags for communication, connection, learning about people, and emotional support played an important role in the formation and strength of both heterogeneous and homogeneous networks. The study also found that heterogeneous networks are highly associated with informing current events and public affairs whereas homogeneous networks are highly associated with sharing information, knowledge and discussion online with like-minded people. This demonstrates that Instagram hashtags used in heterogeneous and homogeneous networks has positive effects on online civic engagement. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications for the impact of hashtags on online networks and engagement.
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Over the past decade, online social networking has grown faster and has rapidly changed the nature of social relationships. As millions of photos, videos, and texts are posted every day, social media has become central to online visual cultures around social experiences, such as self-portraits, brands, self-presentation, friendships, and civic engagement (Hampton, 2011; Johnston et al., 2013). Particularly, online interactive features have become one of the most essential communication tools for establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships with various networks of people (Ellison, Vitak, Gray, & Lampe, 2014). Hashtags, for instance, allow social media users access to relevant information and select the most favorite or related content from other users. Instagram is strategically designed to facilitate communication among people’ connections through the respective networks. By tagging an image with a hashtag, social media users can not only connect with their close friends and family, but also communicate with new people (Nov & Ye, 2010). This often provides more opportunities for individuals to participate in the communication process within their network as they increase interactive and bidirectional communication between sources and receivers.

Bourdieu (1986) defines social capital as the resources inherent in more or less formalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. The aggregation of the actual or potential resources emerge as the connections of individuals are built through mutual acquaintance and recognition (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Social capital resides within a network of connections among members of specific social relationships and offers many benefits to social networks such as self-esteem, education, life satisfaction, and civic engagement (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2000). Though there has been scholarly attention on the relationship between the effects of interactive features such as tags or hyperlinks on social media use and social capital, the existing review of the literature in this area showed that little scholarly attention has been devoted to Instagram alone, particularly hashtags. Therefore, using an online survey of college students, this is the first study to explore the association of Instagram use with bridging social capital (heterogeneous network) and bonding social capital (homogeneous network) as well as how the use of hashtags on Instagram relate to online civic engagement.

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