“Black Twitter” interview

Recently, I was interviewed by University of Alabama master’s student, Theadoris Morris, about “Black Twitter” for her research project.  I appreciated chatting with Theadoris, and wanted to share our conversation here. (Posted with permission.)

TM: Are you familiar with Black Twitter?

MES: Yes!

In what instances have you heard it referenced? What do you think it is?

I am familiar with “Black Twitter” as it has been discussed in news media, but my main engagement with Black Twitter has been through following the excellent scholarly work on the subject (Brock and Florini, for example).

 “Black Twitter” is often used as a shorthand by the news media for African American engagement on Twitter, though I prefer to view the term as a rough descriptor for a broad range of cultural practices on the Twitter platform that may serve to build and reinforce African American community through in-jokes, social and political commentary, and shared interests. 

Have you ever visited the #BlackTwitter hashtag on Twitter? What did you see and what did you think about it?

You know, I have never actually visited the #BlackTwitter hashtag!  One reason for that is that I mainly use hashtags on twitter to tag my own posts, but I don’t often click on hashtags to view topics.

Have you ever been a part of Black Twitter? Or do you think you’ve ever been or could be a part of “Black Twitter?”

Great question!  My own view of Black Twitter is that it describes a cultural practice that isn’t dependent on the use of the hashtag.  Black Twitter in the sense of community practice is happening all the time through the processes that Brock and Florini describe (signifyin’, rhetorical stylings, call and response, and social perspectives informed by identity) as organic processes of communication.  In that sense, though I have never clicked on #BlackTwitter, I certainly engage with, retweet, and compose tweets that might be considered a part of the culturally Black Twitter.  For example, I was just retweeting a post from Jay Smooth about the lack of diversity in the Golden Globes the other night.  Is that me participating in Black Twitter?  I certainly think it could be, though maybe proximity to Black Twitter is just that…proximity.  Maybe your real question is can I, as a white woman, participate in Black Twitter.  That is a complicated question!  Underlying that question is a probe about cultural practices, appropriation, and authenticity that scholars have had about all forms of communication.  I think that people who don’t identify as “Black” can (and do) contribute to the set of practices we point to as “Black Twitter” …because culture is complicated and hard to pin down like that.

Do you think “Black Twitter” has a negative connotation?

I think it depends who the term is used by and to what end.  Certainly the news media has employed the term “Black Twitter” in rhetorical ways that emphasize “otherness” and reinforce white ideologies about technology use.  Discourse around Black Twitter can take on an uncomfortable dynamic of white folks policing black folks for respectability.  We don’t have a public discussion of “White Twitter”, for instance. Additionally, all the features that make twitter a great site for communication also make it an ideal platform of surveillance and control.  This narrative of calling out black use of twitter has a negative assumption embedded in it that black folks weren’t supposed to be on twitter to start with.  I appreciate Brock’s work on this topic, as he expertly points out that the discourse about Black Twitter is a powerful place to locate ideologies of whiteness as they relate to the Internet and technology use.

Do you think it is ok to use “Black Twitter” as an umbrella term for all black users?

No, I don’t think that Black Twitter works as an umbrella term.  Black users get to be as complicated and multi-dimensional as we allow white users to be.  Black Twitter is only a useful designation insofar as it works for users who claim it.  Otherwise, we have to ask, what is this term and who is it actually serving?  Often Black Twitter is used in service to a white agenda that is policing and pathologizing people of color, and that is not only problematic, but supremely dangerous.

Brock mentioned that Twitter was supposed to be for white collar “geeks” who speak correct English, why do you think Blacks “took over” Twitter?

Twitter has many affordances that make it an effective, low barrier communication medium, predominately its’ optimization for mobile use.  Pew Internet data has found that 92% of African Americans own a cell phone, and 56% own a smartphone… I would say that the high penetration of mobile use in these communities overlaps with twitter’s ease of mobile access.

Based on your expertise and knowledge regarding technology, do you think African Americans use social networking sites the same as other races?

I theorize technology as a configuration of the technical, social, political, and cultural. Social networking sites are designed in ways that reflect cultural assumptions and create particular affordances and limitation for use.  Users, in turn, bring cultural assumptions to their technology practice.  Research supports that offline conventions for communication are often translated into online communication practices at the same time new conventions are developed.

Based on the 2011 Pew Report African Americans are overrepresented on Twitter, but not on other SNS such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, why do you think that is so?

I think the mobile accessibility is a big factor in this, as I said earlier.  However, the barebones, textual nature of Twitter might also be an affordance that opens it up as friendly to a wider audience.  Some platforms have particular histories of exclusion that continue to impact audience use and perception of the platform.  For instance, Facebook’s start as a closed community for, at first, ivy league, then other college students impacted adoption of the platform and drew down heavily on collegiate traditions and white, middle-class aesthetics.  Technologies have histories and cultural assumptions built into them that may make them more or less appealing to different user groups.

How important do you think the Twitter platform is in today’s society?

That is hard to say.  It is still evolving and it is always hard to understand the significance of phenomena in the now.  The recent number show that Twitter has more than 215 million active users, which is a sizeable chunk for Internet traffic though a small chunk of the 7 billion people populating the earth.  It is certainly important to the people who are actively engaged with it, but only time will show how it fits into our larger social legacy.

Instead of marches and riots do you think Black Twitter is taking the place of those tactics and is being used by African Americans as a platform to have their voices heard?

I don’t think twitter ever replaces those tactics, but it is certainly a new communication channel for people to share information and organize.  I’m not sure that is unique to African American users, however.  Other groups have used twitter for organizing and activism- I am thinking about the Arab Spring and rainbow revolutions, as well as feminist discussions like #solidarityisforwhitewomen.  Twitter, like all social media, is a bit Janus-faced.  On the one hand a “free” channel for mass communication, on the other a surveillance platform for the military-industrial complex that relies on the exploitation of people of color and other minority groups.  As Facebook would say, “it’s complicated.”   

Is Black Twitter an effective 140-character megaphone to the world for African Americans?

 I don’t think that is for me to say!

Can you explain the Asian Twitter hashtag and what is going on with that?

Activist Suey Park started the hashtag #notyourasiansidekick a few months ago and it spread quickly and became a trending topic.  The hashtag caught on quickly and became a site for Asian Americans to voice their experiences of racism.  I have followed it a bit, since I follow Suey Park, and have enjoyed the nuanced conversations about race and racism that have been a part of the hashtag.  She started another hashtag, #blackpoweryellowperil, to build solidarity between Black and Asian American movements and struggles.

Is there anything else that you would like to add or a question that I didn’t ask that you think would be vital?

Nothing vital. I enjoyed thinking through your questions- very provocative!

For more reading about “Black Twitter” I recommend the following articles:

  • Brock, A. (2012). From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(4), 529–549.
  • Florini, S. (2013). Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on “Black Twitter.” Television & New Media.
  • Manjoo, F. (2010, Aug 10). How Black people use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging. Slate.com Retrieved from http://slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2010/08/how_black_people_use_twitter
  • Rightler-McDaniels, J. L., & Hendrickson, E. M. (2013). Hoes and hashtags: constructions of gender and race in trending topics. Social Semiotics, 0(0), 1–16.
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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on theadorisreports and commented:
    At the beginning of this year I interviewed Dr. Miriam E. Sweeney of the School of Library and Information Studies at The University of Alabama for a study I am conducting with Assistant Dean/Journalism Professor Dr. George Daniels. Dr. Sweeney posted my questions regarding “Black Twitter” and her answers to her blog. I would also like to share…

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