Homophobic discourse is hardly new to the internet, yet the internet is giving homophobic discourse new forms with new social implications. In this paper, I will be using the software tool Constellate, developed by Berkeley’s Digital Humanities “Net Difference” collective, to trace the circulation and communicative functions of the Twitter hashtag #nohomo. #Nohomo and other homophobic linguistic markers have become common sights on Twitter. Nohomophobes.com, a website that publishes a running total of instances of hate speech used on Twitter, reports more than 5,000 instances of “no homo” daily. That this type of harmful, discriminatory language is prevalent online is irrefutable.

This project seeks to explore not just how often #nohomo is used, but in what situations and to what effect. My preliminary research with the Constellate tool has already begun to reveal the semiotic and social complexities of the hashtag. Scholars like Judith Butler have famously argued for understanding homophobic speech as an act of outward aggression and self-identification, yet the nuanced uses of #nohomo suggest that homophobia takes on different implications in the technological mechanisms of the social media setting. The hashtag, as a uniquely contemporary linguistic unit, becomes a marker of self-categorizing as much as a tool of textual violence or disavowal.

As the results of my work with Constellate will demonstrate, the subtextual functions of #nohomo take two primary forms. Firstly, the hashtag is deployed as a tool for warding off association with the feminine. The vast majority of Twitter participants who use the hashtag are male-identified, and commonly #nohomo appears at the end of a tweet that might otherwise associate the user with a female-coded activity—for example, “I do a lot of cooking #nohomo.” Simultaneously, the hashtag is used to ward off association with female-coded emotions, especially love and affection. In its second, albeit related mode, #nohomo is used to distance the user from association with homoeroticism. Both expressions of male-male fandom (e.g. adoration for a professional sports player) and male self-appreciation (e.g. “I look hot in these jeans”) are often followed by #nohomo.

Building my quantitative results, I will be using close reading techniques and social critique to demonstrate how homophobic Twitter hashtags like #nohomo serve a purpose shaped by their digital platform that is, in revealing ways, unlike previously studied iterations of hate speech. I will demonstrate how these hashtags function as paradoxically destabilizing support structures and defense mechanisms, upholding traditional expectations of masculinity and heterosexuality, while simultaneously queering the utterances of the users who deploy them. I will also show how the use of the phrase “no homo,” with its origins in African-‐‑American rap culture, has been co-opted by largely white male Twitter users as they struggle to uphold their masculinity in a social media environment characterized by female-‐‑coded use patterns: emotional outpouring, over-‐‑sharing, constant communication.

This talk was presented at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria Colloquium on June 12, 2015. Learn more about the researcher, Bonnie Ruberg, here.