Selfies for Science: How #ILookLikeAnEngineer Broke the Internet and What Future Hashtags Can Learn

Selfies and hashtags have transformed how we follow trends and receive news on the internet. The beauty of these hashtags is that they provide an additional vessel to shed light on the stories they share on social media. One software engineer did just that with a selfie and a hashtag to break down stereotypes of what an engineer looks like. We investigated what made participants so drawn to share their personal-professional stories online in the popular #ILookLikeAnEngineer identity hashtag movement and what future hashtag crafters can do to have a similar impact .

What are identity hashtag movements?

Identity hashtag movements such as #ProfessionalLocs, #BlackLivesMatter, and #YesToAllWomen have united marginalized groups to reclaim their truth and dismantle stereotypes that may be tied to the group. Posting on social media with these hashtags, amplified with a selfie, has the potential to give a face to the social issues experienced by these marginalized groups. In a way, these movements amplify voices of those who have gone unheard. To understand who participates, why they do, and their perceived impact, we conducted a qualitative study of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer identity hashtag movement.

Image source:

What did we do?We identified both what influenced participation in the movement and what the perceived impact according to participants and non-participants. Based on these findings we determine recommendations for future identity hashtag movements.


First we interviewed Isis Anchalee, the founder of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag, to discuss her inspiration behind the hashtag. We then conducted remote semi-structured interviews with 32 participants and observers of the hashtag from around the world. We asked them about their engagements and perceptions of the movement.

What did we find?

We found cross cutting themes that defined how people decided to participate including: (1) identifying with the movement as a “true form of an engineer” or marginalized group, (2) recognizing public image consequences associated with sharing your personal and professional identity, and (3) determining the audience seeing the post and how it may affect their relationship moving forward.

The other aspect we found is how the movement impacted participants, observers, and the engineering community as a whole. Interviewees reported that they felt empowered by the movement and felt like it raised awareness by maintaining the ongoing conversation about inclusion. Yet, many participants still felt that the same people who heard about the movement are the ones who were already interested; not the ones who actually need to see the movement. In an attempt to connect people who were unaware of the movement, participants coordinated offline activities to engage their local community through meetups and company-wide discussions.

What now?

We know it is too late to give guidelines for previous hashtags that came and went, however, it is not too late for the upcoming ones. If there are other who are interested in a successful (relatively measured through participation and impact) movement we have a couple recommendations in the table below.

Recommendation Description Support from study
Movement exemplars Multiple exemplars showing who should participate and modeling ideal participation behavior Ambiguity around collective identity associated with movement, who is allowed to participate and how
Diverse forms of participation Stories, anonymous posting, concrete actions as alternative forms of participation Discomfort with intersection of multiple identities, desire for tangible change
Audience awareness Indicators of audience presence and viewing behavior on social media platforms, targeting posts for specific subgroups Ambiguity around who would see posts and impact of the movement

Read more

The formal research paper, Selfies as Social Movements: Influences on Participation and Perceived Impact on Stereotypes by Fannie Liu, Denae Ford, Laura Dabbish, and Chris Parnin was recently published at CSCW ‘18, 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. This year’s conference will be held in Jersey City, New Jersey from November 3-7th, 2018.The paper is now online at the digital library and locally.

Question? Comments? Email us or find me on Twitter @DenaeFordRobin! Don’t forget to use the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer.


Someone Like Me: How does Peer Parity Influence Participation of Women on Stack Overflow?

Women who are answered by other women on Stack Overflow reengage sooner.

However, they do not have higher reputation.


It’s pretty challenging to post online when you don’t see many people like you. When multiplied with the fact that the community size can seem intimidatingly large, users can be even further discouraged from participating. In a recent study we conducted about Stack Overflow participation of women, subjects mentioned that one reason they not post on Stack Overflow is that, “They are just not even on the same race track.” In this work, we investigate how exposure to peers can affect the likelihood of further activity. We call this notion of observing people on the same “race track” or having similar individuals to compare oneself peer parity.

What is Peer Parity?

When an individual can identify with at least one other peer when interacting in a community.

With this definition, parity could be in the instance of men, but since there exist many more occurrences to where men find parity than women, we decided to serve the underrepresented community of women for this study.

How we did it?

Data set. Using Stack Exchange’s data archive, we extracted user and post data. Then we generated the genders of the user extracted by modifying an existing Gender Computing Tool. Our modified tool uses the first name of user display names on Stack Overflow and achieves higher precision among identifiable women. Of the 5,987,284 users we extracted, we identified 363,133 women. Of the women we identified, only 32% of have ever posted a question.

For this analysis, we had a strict definition of peer parity:

Parity = more than one distinct woman on a thread based on Q&A

Non-Parity = threads that only have one distinct woman

For example the figure above demonstrates a thread that would classify as parity.


Step 1. Selected 1000 women who posted more than 1 question

Step 2. Record their reputation points and badges

Step 3. Record date of their first and second activity

Step 4. Identify if first and second activity was parity or non-parity

Step 5. Statistical comparison!


We found a significant difference in types of second activity after participating on a parity or non-parity thread (p = 2.799e- 06, α =.05), which was either posting a question(N = 833) or posting an answer(N = 167). We found a significant difference in the time between posts for women who asked a question on parity threads in comparison to non-parity threads (p = 1.83e-05, α =.05). The cumulative time differences by posts are demonstrated in the figure below. However, we did not find a significant difference in reputation points or number of badges.

Simply put:

Women who are answered by other women reengage sooner.

However, they do not have higher reputation.


Sharing success. The very idea of being transparent about a community problem may have played a factor in the increased interest in the site. Perhaps one way to inspire and increase others to participate is to showcase top-rated questions asked by women. This will not only demonstrate how to post successful questions on Stack Overflow, but also shows the diverse set of users contributing.

Paired guidance. As we found peer parity can influence participation, we hypothesize that building mentorship programs around shared identity can be a strong way to build communities and encourage participation for a broad audience.Mentorship is a bidirectional relationship—both parties have something to gain. Encouraging users to seek guidance can benefit both the mentor, providing guidance, and the mentee, seeking guidance.

Revealing user identity. It can be difficult for users to separate from their identity in public spaces, furthermore, they should not have to. We should embrace and support users who wish to disclose this information. Allowing users the opportunity to bring their whole self into a community where they seek help may just be the encouragement they need to be active contributors


Our research paper, Someone Like Me: How Does Peer Parity Influence Participation of Women on Stack Overflow? by Denae Ford, Alisse Harkins, and Chris Parnin was recently accepted this year at VL/HCC, IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing. This year’s conference will be taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina from October 11 -14, 2016. The paper is now available online.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let us know below!

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