Hands Up Gesture Wins Symbol of the Year Vote in 2014

demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, using the hands up gesture on August 18, 2014 is used by permission from InterOccupy.net. Source page: http://interoccupy.net/blog/hands-up-dont-shoot-demands/

STANFORD, CA - Affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford University have chosen the hands up ("Don't shoot!") gesture as the Symbol of the Year from 2014, in their third annual vote for notable symbols.

The citation for the Symbol of the Year said: "The hands up ('Don't shoot!') gesture symbolized the killing of an unarmed 18 year old black man, Michael Brown, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014. Witnesses said Brown had his hands raised before being shot. 'Hands Up Don't Shoot' was widely adopted as a rallying cry against police brutality and racial bias." - Nominated by Howon Lee (Class of 2015 and M.S. Candidate), Emily Mandelbaum (Class of 2002), and Terry Winograd (Professor Emeritus, Computer Science)

Professional athletes and politicians adopted the gesture in the latter weeks of 2014, when grand juries declined to indict Wilson as well as New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who had been investigated in connection with the July 17 death of another African American man, Eric Garner, 43, in Staten Island.

Other Notable Symbols from 2014 chosen by voters for their significance were:

the umbrella

The umbrella came to symbolize the movement for peaceful revolution and democracy in Hong Kong (tied to Occupy Central with Love and Peace, some of whose members objected to the use of the umbrella as a symbol). Umbrellas were used as a defense against tear gas during protests that drew over 100,000 participants seeking free and fair elections.  - Nominated by David Orr (Class of 2005) and Alice Fang (Class of 2015)


Black Lives Matter is a social justice movement that grew out of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. The social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was widely used in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown, and is "a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society." - Nominated by David Orr (Class of 2005)

the Heartbleed bug logo

The Finnish firm Codenomicon created a brand name and symbol for the "Heartbleed" bug after uncovering an OpenSSL vulnerability in April. Codenomicon called this branding strategy "Bugs 2.0", a new and more effective approach to educating users about security issues.  - Nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director and Lecturer)

the Biohazard sign

The Biohazard sign, originally developed in 1966 by Dow Chemical Company for use on their containers, was widely used in media in 2014 in relation to the Ebola virus. West Africa was terrorized by the ongoing epidemic of Ebola throughout 2014, the largest Ebola outbreak in history.  - Nominated by David Orr (Class of 2005)

the flag of ISIS (the "Islamic State")

A variant of the black standard/banner of Muhammad from Islamic tradition, the black flag featuring the shahada above a rendering of the seal of Muhammad is used by jihadist groups including the "Islamic State" (ISIS or ISIL) and Al-Shabaab. ISIS became a target of war by the United States in 2014 following its beheadings of US and UK citizens. - Nominated by Keith Devlin (Senior Researcher, H-STAR)

the electron micrograph of the Ebola virus

News outlets used a few different transmission electron micrographs of Ebola virions as symbols of this deadly disease during the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014. A widely used Ebola TEM was a color-enhancement of one of the first images of the Ebola Zaire virus, taken in 1976 by Dr. Frederick Murphy at the Centers for Disease Control.  - Nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director and Lecturer)

the hashtag character ("#")

The hashtag or number character continued to grow in use in 2014 as the prefix symbol for hashtags on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The usefulness of this typographical symbol led the writer Lindy West to playfully dub the hashtag "symbol of the year" in 2010, two years before our first Symbol of the Year vote.  - Nominated by Joyce Ohgi (Class of 2002)

the marijuana leaf

The cannabis/marijuana leaf symbolized changing opinions and ongoing debates about the legalization of marijuana. At the start of the year, Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Washington joined during the summer, and Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC voted to do so in November, though legal battles continue. - Nominated by David Orr (Class of 2005)

The nine recognized symbols were chosen from 23 nominations submitted between December 19th and 26th, with voting taking place December 28th through December 30th. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators. Selection indicated only that the symbol had been significant during the year, rather than an endorsement of any point of view associated with it. One hundred and fifteen alumni/ae, students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the Program cast ballots in a system in which each voter could vote for any nominated symbol as Symbol of the Year, Other Notable Symbol, or neither.

All of the program's alums, current students, and faculty/staff were eliglbie to vote. The ballot stated that the purpose of the vote was "to recognize the important role that symbols play in our world" ("as affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program").

The idea for a "Symbol of the Year" was inspired by the many annual "of the year" designations and awards that are put out by various organizations, especially the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote. Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information.

For "Criteria", the ballot stated the following:

"The Symbol of the Year need not be new to this year [2014], but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event, or linguistic unit. Types of symbols include the following:

  • a flag or emblem (e.g. the Olympic flag, the red AIDS awareness ribbon)
  • a grapheme, written character, or glyph (e.g. the '+' sign, the lowercase 'e', the Helvetica 'A')
  • a hand signal or gesture (e.g. the 'A-OK' sign, the salute)
  • an iconic object or animal (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, the black cat)
  • an ideogram (e.g. the peace symbol, the caduceus symbol of commerce)
  • a logo (e.g. the Red Cross logo, the MTV logo)
  • a pictogram (e.g. the International Symbol of Access, the Universal Recycling Symbol)
  • a screen icon (e.g. the magnifying glass/search icon, the trash icon)
  • an auditory symbol or acoustic signal (e.g. the train whistle, the Intel bongs, the SOS prosign)
  • a tactile symbol (e.g. a braille character, a TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol)
  • a symbolic action or event (e.g. the lighting of a candle, the sun setting)
  • an iconic photograph or image (e.g. the Migrant Mother, the Guerrillero Heroico)
  • a posted sign or signal (e.g. an exit sign, a red light)
  • an abbreviation (e.g. 'lbs.', 'USA')
  • an iconic person or group (e.g. the Virgin Mary, the Freedom Riders)
  • a name or nickname (e.g. 'Betty Crocker', 'Joe the Plumber')
  • a word or phrase (e.g. 'email', 'Win one for the Gipper!')
  • a mascot or imaginary character (e.g. Ronald McDonald, Yogi Bear)"

"Lots of things can be symbols," said the program's Associate Director, Todd Davies, after the first Symbol of the Year vote two years ago, "but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status, that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable. But we wanted to draw attention to the signficance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life."

The photo above showing demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, using the hands up gesture on August 18, 2014 is used by permission from InterOccupy.net. Source page: http://interoccupy.net/blog/hands-up-dont-shoot-demands/