Hyperrhiz 25

Looking Back to Move Forward: A Review of Literature to Identify #BlackLivesMatter as the Virtual Community That Sparked a Movement.

Candice L. Edrington
University of South Carolina

Citation: Edrington, Candice L.. “Looking Back to Move Forward: A Review of Literature to Identify #BlackLivesMatter as the Virtual Community That Sparked a Movement..” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 25, 2022. doi:10.20415/hyp/025.e01

Abstract: George Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watchman, was acquitted in July of 2013 for the murder of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin. Upset by this news, many people took to social media to express their discontent. A Facebook post from one user in particular, Alicia Garza, resulted in the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. It wasn’t until the shooting death of another African American teenager, Michael Brown, that the hashtag gained momentum on other social media sites. This paper argues that the use of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter on Twitter created a meeting place, free from temporal and spatial boundaries, for people to organize against and combat the racial injustices imparted upon the Black community. Through a review of literature on virtual communities, this paper identifies the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as a virtual community which 1) increased the visibility of these injustices imparted upon the Black community and 2) catalyzed the hashtag #blacklivesmatter into a social movement.

Keywords: virtual community, literature review, #BlackLivesMatter, social media, Twitter, visibility.

Looking Back to Move Forward

In 2013, after the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman who killed unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza took to social media in disbelief. In what she calls a ‘love letter’ to her people, Garza’s statement prompted the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Since then, #blacklivesmatter has sparked a global and somewhat controversial conversation about the inequality experienced by African American people. Taking a life of its own, the #blacklivesmatter hashtag has become a virtual meeting place for both supporters and critics alike. Through heavy circulation, the discourse of #blacklivesmatter has invited many people into the conversation regardless of their temporal and spatial barriers. Garza and two of her friends decided to use the momentum gained from social media to the advantage of people interested in this community, creating an official organization, Black Lives Matter, which eventually organized the Black Lives Matter movement. In this paper, I argue that technology played an important role in the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement by using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as a virtual community with the social media platform Twitter serving as its virtual settlement. With the cohesiveness of its members and supporters, the Black Lives Matter movement provides insight to future research on collective identity in virtual communities.

A Review of Virtual Community Literature

Over the past few decades, technological advancements have provided us with many different affordances including but not limited to the Internet, cell phones, mobile banking, and online shopping. Allowing us to escape spatial and temporal boundaries, these affordances have alleviated the need for face-to-face interactions in certain instances. Van Dijk (1997) proclaims, “one of the promises of the Internet and other large-scale computer networks is the creation of new public spaces and communities” (p. 39). Known as virtual communities, these new public spaces have pushed the envelope when it comes to defining a community. Researchers Chiu, Hsu, and Wang (2006) state, “the proliferation of network access has facilitated the rapid growth of virtual communities” (p. 1872). Several questions could be raised in reference to this idea of a virtual community. For starters, what exactly is a virtual community? Secondly, why do people join a virtual community? Lastly, how does a virtual community differ from a traditional community?

What Are Virtual Communities?

According to scholars Koh and Kim (2001), “virtual communities can be dichotomized as online originated and offline originated” (p.407). In defining virtual communities, it is important that we understand the term ‘virtual’ first. Ridings and Gefen (2004) define the term virtual as meaning “the primary interaction is electronic or enabled by technology” (p. 3). Using this definition of virtual, researcher Anita Blanchard (2008) states, “the term virtual community is used to refer to many different forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC) groups” (p. 101). Introducing the element of similarity in terms of interests, authors Gupta and Kim (2004) define virtual communities as “places on the web where people can find and then electronically “talk” to others with similar interests” (p. 2679). With a more sophisticated definition, Bogazzi and Dholaki (2002) view virtual communities as “mediated social spaces in the digital environment that allow groups to form and be sustained primarily through ongoing communication processes” (p. 103). Honing in on the fluidity of virtual communities, van Dijk (1997) suggests that the best definition of the concept virtual in this context is: “the ongoing liberation of the restrains of space and time in human communication” (p. 39). Lastly, Gupta and Kim (2004) provide an all-encompassing definition of virtual communities when they suggest that “virtual communities can be basically defined as the groups of like-minded strangers who interact predominantly in cyberspace to form relationships, share knowledge, have fun or engage in economic transactions” (p. 2681). Given the work of these scholars, we can define virtual communities as groups of members with shared interests who meet through the use of computer mediated communication in an effort to communicate without spatial and temporal restrictions.

Members of Virtual Communities

In his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold (1994) describes the essence of virtual communities: “people in virtual communities use words as screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art, and a lot of idle talk”  (p. xvii). With a clear conceptualization of virtual communities, one may wonder why people decide to join virtual communities.

Ridings and Gefen (2004) suggest that people join virtual communities for social support, friendship, and recreational purposes (Ridings & Gefen, “Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out Online”).  Bogozzi and Dholaki (2002) indicate that membership in virtual communities are voluntary. They write, “membership, frequency, and extent of participation in virtual communities is driven by volitional choice, and may be terminated by the member relatively effortlessly” (p. 103). Associate Professor Sunanda Sangwan (2005) identifies three constructs of virtual community membership, “functional needs fulfillment of required uses by quality of content; emotive needs fulfillment and acceptance of relationship building through interaction and communication in virtual environment; and contextual needs that relate to individual user specific expectations and experiences beyond and other than functional and emotive needs” (p. 2). Assessing the reasoning for joining these communities, Sangwan (2005) posits that the motivation for members of virtual communities include: “spatial convenience of information gathering and sharing, reducing time in receiving information by choice, increased pleasure by ownership of actions and improved decision making, and being part of a larger knowledgeable community” (p. 4).

McMillan and Chavis (1986) argue that feeling a sense of community is one of the main reasons, if not the most important reason, people become members of communities (p. 9).  They include four dimensions in feeling a sense of community. These dimensions are “feelings of membership (belonging to and identifying with the community; relatedness), feelings of influence (having influence on and being influenced by; mattering), integration and fulfillment of needs (feelings of being supported while supporting others; needs being met), and a shared emotional connection (feelings of relationships, shared history; sharing of history, experiences, places)” (p. 9). Koh and Kim (2001) use these dimensions outlined for describing a sense of community to create dimensions for a sense of virtual community. Concurring with McMillan and Chavis, Koh and Kim (2001) cite membership and influence as dimensions of both senses of community. Distinguishing between community and virtual community, they add immersion to the equation; immersion being the ability of people to “feel the state of flow during virtual community navigation” (p. 407).

Traditional vs. Virtual

Online communities in particular “have existed on the Internet for almost a quarter of a century” (Ridings and Gefen, 2004, p. 2). At this point, the difference between traditional and virtual communities may be evident. However, it is important to delineate the two. Gupta and Kim (2004) reiterate the main difference in their analysis by declaring, “unlike traditional communities (neighborhood, town or region based) members in the VCs are not physically bound together. VCs are more concerned with human relationships like in relational communities (hobby clubs or religious groups)” (p. 2680). In a more elaborate differentiation, Rheingold (1994) provides a narrative to prove the point of opposition between traditional and virtual communities:

How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we search through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances in order to find people who share our values and interests. We then exchange information about one another, disclose and discuss our mutual interests, and sometimes we become friends. In a virtual community we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions or who use words in a way we find attractive. (p. 11)

Types of Virtual Communities

In his article Selling Cyberspace: Constructing and Deconstructing the Rhetoric of Community, author David Silver (2005) identifies three models of virtual communities; the electronic town hall model, the electronic shopping mall model, and the town-gown industry model. Silver explains the electronic town hall model to be a digital space where residents could come together. He defines the electronic shopping mall model as an electronic network where businesses could relish in the financial aspects of bringing citizens together. Lastly, he notes that the town-gown industry model is a collaboration between key players in the community such as industry, government, and community members. (p. 189).

Armstrong and Hagel (1996) categorize virtual communities into four types based on consumer needs: communities of transaction, communities of interest, communities of fantasy, and communities of relationships. They define communities of transactions as being communities that “facilitate buying and selling of products and services and deliver information related to those transactions” (p. 85); communities of interest as those communities that “bring together participants who interact extensively with one another on specific topics such as interior design and gardening” (p. 85); communities of fantasy as communities that allow members to “create new environments, personalities, or stories where people can explore new identities in the imaginary worlds of fantasy” (p. 85); and communities of relationships as being those communities “formed around certain life experiences (such as death or threatening disease) that are often very intense and can lead to the formation of deep personal connections” (p. 85).

Characteristics of Virtual Communities

“Regardless of geographic dispersion or organizational emphasis, virtual communities share several characteristics”, state Bogazzi and Dholaki (2002, p. 105). Although Bogazzi and Dholakia (2002) note that virtual communities share several characteristics, they direct our attention to one characteristic that is undoubtedly present in every virtual community. According to them, “irrespective of type, one characteristic that all virtual communities share is that text-based communication in the digital environment is the primary formative and shaping force for their evolution, growth, and sustenance” (p. 104). Ridings and Gefen (2004) posit the uniqueness of virtual communities by highlighting that “their content is member-generated, as opposed to other Internet information which is typically provided by the site provider” (p. 4). They also identify the frequency in which members participate as a characteristic of virtual communities. Whittaker, Isaacs, and O’Day (1997) recognize several attributes of virtual communities. Their core attributes are: “members have some shared goal, interest, need, or activity that provides the primary reason for belonging to the community, members engage in repeated active participation and there are often intense interactions, strong emotional ties and shared activities occurring between participants, members have access to shared resources and there are policies for determining access to those resources, reciprocity of information, support and services between members, and shared context (social conventions, language, protocols)” (p. 137).

Lastly, van Djik (1997) distinguishes characteristics that are present in all virtual communities. He notes composition and activity (it has to be clear who is a participant; have at least one common activity), social organization (most important aspect; organized despite temporal and spatial limitations), language and interaction (emojis; interactions can be asynchronous), and culture and identity (share a few interests) (p. 48).

Race and Virtual Communities

In discussing virtual communities, it is imperative to acknowledge how race factors into the digital landscape. Although virtual communities are defined as spaces specifically designed for computer mediated communication aimed to provide a sense of community and belonging, the politics of the technology used to create these spaces have not always benefited or been afforded to members of minority and marginalized communities. Many scholars have outlined the sociopolitical implications of technology and how the digital divide attributed to a lack of access and limited resources. However, this review is situated within the idea that the technological advancements of today have created an equal playing field for everyone. Members of minority and marginalized communities now have the ability to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and put forth counter-discourses into the public sphere. According to Florini (2019), these digital spaces and virtual communities have allowed African Americans in particular a space to “create and use multimedia, transplatform digital networks to articulate their experiences, cultivate community and solidarity, mobilize political resistance, and both bypass and intervene in legacy news media coverage” (p. 3)  Analyzing #BlackLivesMatter as a virtual community highlights how “Black Americans used digital networks not only to cope with and challenge day-to-day experiences of racism, but also as an incubator for the discourses that the movement propelled onto the national stage” (Florini, 2019, p. 3).

In reviewing the literature on virtual communities, I defined the phrase, identified the reasons scholars suggest people become members of virtual communities, presented several types of virtual communities, outlined some qualifying characteristics of them, and illuminated how race plays a vital role in the creation of and participation in these communities. With this knowledge of virtual communities, the argument can be made that the hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, which became the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, served as a virtual community. Given this, it is important to understand the history of the hashtag in addition to exploring how it functioned as a virtual community.


After the July 2013 acquittal of white neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who killed unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin, activist and organizer Alicia Garza took to Facebook to write what she has called a ‘love letter’ to her people. Frustrated by the results of the trial, “Garza logged onto Facebook and wrote, ‘Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.’ Garza’s friend Patrisse Cullors wrote back, closing her post with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter” (Wortham,” Black Tweets Matter”). Opal Tomeli later joined friends Garza and Cullors. Through joining forces, the three friends continued to promote use of #blacklivesmatter, the hashtag responsible for catalyzing the Black Lives Matter movement.

The #blacklivesmatter hashtag did not initially gain much recognition. The hashtag was cited to be used sparsely following the events of the Trayvon Martin case. It wasn’t until the events of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014 that propelled the #blacklivesmatter hashtag into mainstream media. Michael ‘Mike’ Brown, another African American teenager who was 18 years of age at the time of death, was left on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri for over four hours after being slain by a white police officer. Spectators took to the streets of Ferguson to record videos, take pictures, and post comments on social media in outrage and disbelief of what had just taken place. Both peaceful protests and riots flooded the streets. Similar to the Trayvon Martin case, the accused killer, white police officer Darren Wilson, was not indicted.

According to writers Anderson and Hitlin from the Pew Research Center, “the #blacklivesmatter hashtag appeared an average of 58,747 times per day in the roughly three weeks following Brown’s death. However, the use of the hashtag increased dramatically three months later when on November 25th, the day after a Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict the officer involved in Brown’s death, the #blacklivesmatter hashtag appeared 172,772 times. During the subsequent three weeks, the hashtag was used 1.7 million times” (Anderson and Hitlin, “The Hashtag”). Brandon Patterson, writer for Mother Jones, cites the Center of Media and Social Impact when he writes, “during the August 2014 Ferguson protests, 200,000 users supporting Black Lives Matter had 5.4 million retweets” (Patterson, “Black Lives Matter”).  Media professionals and common citizens took to Twitter to join the conversation by posting remarks with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as can be seen in Figures 1 and 2 below.

Figure 1. Media outlet joins the Twitter conversation.
Tweet by MAG-Net (@mediaaction) reproduced in Anderson and Hitlin, “The Hashtag”.
Figure 2. Common citizen joins the Twitter conversation.
Tweet by Katori (@iamkatori) reproduced in Anderson and Hitlin, “The Hashtag”.

The hashtag continued to be used even after the events of Ferguson, Missouri. Twitter users began to use the hashtag in relation to other acts of racial injustices and police brutality by incorporating the #blacklivesmatter hashtag with other hashtags representing the victims’ names. On Twitter’s 10th anniversary, Twitter analysts examined data to determine the top hashtags used since their inception. #Blacklivesmatter was cited as number three. The results of the top ten hashtags related to #blacklivesmatter are shown in Figure 3 via hashtagify.me.

Figure 3. Top Ten Hashtags Related to #blacklivesmatter. Created with hashtagify.me.

Twitter: The Birthplace of a Virtual Community

Scholar Quentin Jones (1997) suggests in his work on virtual communities and virtual settlements that in order to understand virtual communities, we must first understand its virtual settlement. Jones defines a virtual settlement as “the cyber-place within which a virtual community operates” (Jones, “Virtual-Communities”). Jones continues to argue that one comes to understand virtual communities by looking at their cultural artifacts (postings, structure, and content) such as archeologists do. To understand the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as a virtual community, it is important that we examine its virtual settlement.

As previously mentioned, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter was first cited as being posted on Facebook. Although it was first seen on Facebook, hashtags were adopted by Twitter as a meeting place for groups to discuss topics of common interest. MacArthur states that “by July of 2009, Twitter hashtags were formally adopted by Twitter and anything with a # in front of it became hyper-linked. And the move was later accentuated when Twitter introduced ‘Trending Topics’, placing the most popular hashtags right on its homepage” (MacArthur, “The History”). #Blacklivesmatter was not heavily utilized or circulated until it gained momentum on Twitter.

According to the ‘About’ page on Twitter.com, Twitter, founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Noah Glass, and Biz Stone, is a micro blogging site allowing subscribers 140 characters to deliver their message also known as a tweet. The official website of Twitter states that their mission is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers” (“Twitter”).

To be defined as a virtual settlement, Jones (1997) provides characteristics that are required to be met. These characteristics are: a minimum level of interactivity, a variety of communicators, a minimum level of sustained membership, and a virtual common-public-space where a significant portion of interactive group-CMCs occur (Jones, “Virtual-Communities”). With 313 million monthly active users, 82% of which are active mobile device users, Twitter rapidly became a worldwide sensation (“Twitter”). Since its creation, Twitter has changed the way in which people share information, get breaking news, join global conversations, and launch social movements. Allowing subscribers of the site to participate in conversations, reply, retweet, follow, and unfollow others, Twitter meets the requirement of interaction. Possibly the most conversational social media site thus far, Twitter became a meeting place for people to subscribe to the Black Lives Matter movement through the usage of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. According to Anderson and Hitlin (2016), “from its initial appearance in mid-2013 through March 2016, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has appeared on Twitter almost 11.8 million times” (Anderson and Hitlin, “The Hashtag”). This longevity meets the required sustained membership of a virtual settlement. Twitter offers users the ability to participate in communities that they otherwise wouldn’t because of the spatial and temporal barriers. By clicking on hashtags, such as #blacklivesmatter, Twitter provides a space for all participants of the conversation to view a collection of other responses meeting the criteria of a common public space. Twitter could be described as a meeting place for people of all walks of life (gender, race, ethnicity, location, religion, social class, sexual orientation etc.). Allowing any and every one to sign up on the site, Twitter meets the requirement of a variety of communicators. In their research on the Black Lives Matter movement entitled Beyond the Hashtags, authors Freelon, McIlwain and Clark (2016) declare, “Twitter users do not associate with one another randomly. Rather, they follow, mention, and retweet each other in patterns that often reveal their shared identities or political affiliations (p. 23). Jones delineates the difference between virtual settlements and virtual communities but suggests that in order to have a virtual community, there must be a virtual settlement. He concludes by highlighting, “the existence of a virtual settlement is proof of the existence of a related virtual community” (Jones, “Virtual-Communities”). Because of this, we can identify Twitter as the virtual settlement in which #blacklivesmatter became a virtual community.

Having established Twitter as a virtual settlement, an argument could be made that #blacklivesmatter is in fact also a virtual community. Through this virtual community, much information has been provided in an effort to raise awareness and bring visibility to the police brutality and injustices done to the African American people. People who did not live in or who did not identify with the African American race were invited into the conversation by way of the discourse that circulated throughout several media outlets. To understand how #blacklivesmatter functioned to heighten visibility to the publics outside of its intended audience, it is important to examine the circulation of the text, images, and videos conceived through this virtual community.

Circulation: How #BlackLivesMatter Went Viral

“Most of the basic technologies behind new media technologies are those that enable users to reproduce, transport, and share stored information in ways that are quicker and more reliable than older analog media forms” (Warnick & Heineman, 2012, p. 70). Circulation could be defined as how discourse becomes spreadable media. In examining the virtual community #blacklivesmatter, the presence of the hashtag allowed users from several different platforms to monitor and voluntarily join the conversation through intertextuality. By using the hashtag, non-members of Twitter could search for tweets via Google. According to Freelon et al. (2016), “Google currently indexes all public tweets, rendering them searchable just like any other website. Tweets therefore have the potential to reach audiences who may not even be on Twitter at all through their Google searches” (p. 14). With the ability to search for tweets containing #blacklivesmatter outside of Twitter, higher visibility was placed on the Black Lives Matter movement and allowed all information regarding the movement to go viral.

In their book Rhetoric Online: The Politics of New Media, Warnick and Heineman (2012) discuss the characteristics of viral videos. In order to be defined as a viral video, they conclude that the video must receive a large number of views, produce substantial responses, and rely heavily on emotions and newness. I suggest that these criteria can be used not only for viral videos, but also for text and still images. According to scholar Sanjay Sharma (2013), “the high profile adoption and use of hashtags by politicians (e.g. #obama), celebrities (#ladygaga), social movements (#Arab_spring, #Occupy) and emergency events (#Fukishima) have led to hashtags becoming integral to the viral circulation of tweets” (p. 50). The amateur recordings and images of African Americans being treated unjustly by law enforcement elicited emotion in people from all frames of references, motivating them to share the visuals with their networks. Once people shared these recordings and images with their networks, their networks began to share it with their networks, creating viral material. Through their research, scholars Freelon et al. (2016) identified the most circulated image to date that surfaced from the #blacklivesmatter virtual community. At the time of their findings, Freelon et al. identify the image as first appearing on Twitter in August of 2014. Figure 4 shows the image that was cited as being shared “46, 506 times” (Freelon et al., p.31).

Figure. 4. The most shared image on Twitter that circulated through #blacklivesmatter (Freelon et al. 31).

Through this virtual community, there have been many manifestations. Shortly after the creation of the hashtag, an official website for Black Lives Matter was created as a more organized space. From this website, many subscribers to the #blacklivesmatter hashtag were able to connect with other subscribers offline at formalized events to form real connections in addition to virtual ones. Through analyzing #blacklivesmatter and its circulation, we can understand how intended and unintended audiences alike were drawn to this idea of a community.


According to Rheingold (1994), “virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (p. 5). The hashtag #blacklivesmatter has proven to be a virtual community that sparked a global conversation and increased the visibility of the injustices and brutality imparted upon African American people at the hands of law enforcement. What started out as ‘love letter’ to African American people after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, #blacklivesmatter has alleviated all temporal and spatial barriers, allowing people to connect and join the community in an asynchronous way. Although the hashtag has been seen used on other social media sites, Twitter, defined as the virtual settlement of this virtual community, ignited the fire of people getting involved and standing up for equality. Patterson writes, “Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters have managed to drive the national debate on policing, in part because they tweet about it more often, and with wider reach, than mainstream news outlets or the conservative Twitter users who push a counter-narrative” (Patterson, “Black Lives Matter”).

This hashtag, created to raise awareness, has propelled into an official organization, Black Lives Matter, which has created 26 chapters around the globe thus far. From this organization, the Black Lives Matter movement was created. With only a few years under its belt, the Black Lives Matter movement has received incredible coverage due to the circulation of material found in the virtual community #blacklivesmatter. In examining #blacklivesmatter and its circulation, we can understand how intended and unintended audiences alike were drawn to this idea of a community. The cohesiveness of the members and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement provide insight to future research on collective identity in virtual communities. Chiu et al. acknowledges “the biggest challenge in fostering a virtual community is the supply of knowledge, namely the willingness to share knowledge with other members” (1873). With many members of the virtual community contributing information on more than just the killings of African American people, #blacklivesmatter has become a space to share experiences of the black community, as well as a place to organize against and resist the injustices imparted upon African American people, both past and present. Unfortunately, this community is one that is very much still active.


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