From the Series: Keywords for Ethnography and Design

Photo by Anna Klepikova.

What tools and categories do we use to search digital infrastructures? How do the designs of algorithms influence the kinds of knowledge that we produce as ethnographers of the social in digitally mediated worlds? Design ethnography and ethnographic design are both haunted by the specter of how our keyword searches shape our research and the social worlds we make visible. With increasing importance, contemporary social movements rely on communication technologies to tether together people and resources in local places. Sometimes called hashtag activism or networked social movements, protesters increasingly utilize the internet to bring about social change using keywords. For example, the 2011 call to #OccupyWallStreet by Adbusters was an invitation to organize using keywords. Networked social movements, including #Egypt, #Indignados, #JusticeForTrayvon, #BlackLivesMatter, #IdleNoMore, #JeSuisCharlie, and more depend on the web to share messages and coordinate actions. Why did this shift in the organization and language of protest come about? Long before the Internet digitized the connective capacity of keywords, Raymond Williams theorized how some keywords are constitutive threads that lace together elements of culture and society, where meaning-making is a product of historical and social change.

In Keywords, Williams (1983) shows how words take on different meanings as historical and social relationships shift. Words, such as collective, democracy, and private, are fastened to space and time as well as culture and society. To perceive transformations in meaning, one needn’t look only to dictionaries, but also to the range of everyday usage. For Williams, a dictionary is the functional list of words available defined by their constituent meanings at the time of publication. Vocabulary, though, is the sphere of meaning held in common by a group, where sets of words in active use are shaped and reshaped “in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view” (Williams 1983, 24). For keywords, Williams (1983, 15) asserted, “certain uses bound together certain ways of seeing culture and society,” where culture refers to a common way of life and society suggests that it is acted out in association with others. Ergo, while there is no private language, there are multiple, disputed meanings of words within cultures and societies. Similarly, when networked social movements utilize keywords not only are they stitching together threads of culture and society, they are processing them through technology.

In the present, keywords are terms used by search engines to map content on websites. Beginning in the 1990s, webmasters tagged sites with keywords to make them searchable, indexable, and retrievable. While these tags are often invisible to the web surfer, they are the connective substrate of search engines that allow for content to flow across domains. Search engines function more like vocabularies than dictionaries. Typing a keyword into one search engine returns a series of hyperlinks, yet each search engine returns different hyperlinks for the same keyword.

For example, searching for “Occupy Wall Street” on Google will not yield the same results as querying Facebook or Tumblr. Sometimes, depending on the day and your location, the same keyword may return different results on the same website. The presentation of results allow users a sense of choice, where engines potentially return thousands of referents. In this way, every keyword is connected in a web that is rendered meaningful within the context of culture and society.

What is Not a Keyword?

There is a major difference between keywords and categories. While a category, like social movements, can lead to the right place in a library, as a keyword it does little to locate specific information online. Search engines rely on users having an embodied sense of how keywords operate as categories, but do not supplant them. Categories are important forms of thought that allow visualization, comprehension, and grouping of like kinds. For example, the category of tree evokes a picture of the ideal tree, different for each person. As questions become more abstract the visualization process is muddled and requires more information. How does one query categorical abstractions, like love and friendship? Specificity requires more context and thus a move beyond categories to specific types and names.

What is a Keyword?

The digitization of text made an enormous impact on all spheres of culture and society. Yet, while categories group concepts that are alike, keywords work best as unique identifiers. This is why so many keywords appear as strings of words bound together by the symbol #. In terms of format, the use of the pound (#) symbol was a clever way of getting the user to code their messages so that a search engine could quickly find and return that text string. Twitter designers wanted their search function to work on phones where there were only two symbols available on the keypad, # or *. We could just as easily be typing *OccupyWallStreet, but not much else. This hack on the hash function of phone keypads has transformed social movement organizing and naming.

Keywords in Context

Keywords have always embodied more than relations between objects and signifiers. Each keyword is a web of connectivity between people, places, ideas, technologies, and values. When speaking in the language of search engine’s algorithms, movements harness the power to define themselves and connect to others. Because search engines results are affected by users (and hence are social!), it is critical to know how they work and change. Therefore, a movement’s capacity not only to format unique keywords, but also to connect new movements to older keywords turns search engines into political tools. The ability to wield keywords as “weapons of the geek” (Coleman 2017) will also determine the shape of movements and how activists interact. Using the # symbol turns these keywords into social infrastructures that travel between keyboards and communities recursively.


Coleman, Gabriella. 2017. “From Internet Farming to Weapons of the Geek.” Current Anthropology 58, S15: 91–102.

Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.