Black Twitter is a cultural identity on the Twitter social network focused on issues of interest to the black community, particularly in the United States. Feminista Jones described it in Salon as "a collective of active, primarily African-American Twitter users who have created a virtual community ... [and are] proving adept at bringing about a wide range of sociopolitical changes." Similar Black Twitter communities are growing in South Africa and Great Britain. Although Black Twitter has a strong black American user base, other people and groups are able to be a part of this social media circle through commonalities in shared experiences and reactions to such online.
According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 28 percent of African Americans who use the Internet use Twitter, compared to 20 percent of online white, non-Hispanic Americans. In addition, 11 percent of African-American Twitter users say they use Twitter at least once a day, compared to 3 percent of white users.
André Brock of the University of Iowa dates the first published comments on black Twitter usage to a 2008 piece by blogger Anil Dash, and a 2009 article by Chris Wilson in The Root describing the viral success of Twitter joke memes such as #YouKnowYoureBlackWhen and #YouKnowYoureFromQueens that were primarily aimed at black Twitter users. Brock says the first reference to a Black Twitter community—as "Late Night Black People Twitter" and "Black People Twitter"—occurred in the November 2009 article "What Were Black People Talking About on Twitter Last Night?" by Choire Sicha, co-founder of current-affairs website The Awl. Sicha described it as "huge, organic and ... seemingly seriously nocturnal"—in fact, active around the clock. Blacktwitter.com was released independently in the fall of 2015 to reflect the humorous side of blacktwitter in images.
Reciprocity and community
An August 2010 article by Farhad Manjoo in Slate, "How Black People Use Twitter," brought the community to wider attention. Manjoo wrote that young black people appeared to use Twitter in a particular way: "They form tighter clusters on the network—they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies—posts directed at other users." Manjoo cited Brendan Meeder of Carnegie Mellon University, who argued that the high level of reciprocity between the hundreds of users who initiate hashtags (or "blacktags") leads to a high-density, influential network.
Furthermore, Meredith Clark has studied the topic of African American practice of creating hashtags on Twitter by arguing that most people use them to “test their opinions with the assurance they are being shared within a space where fundamental values are still agreed upon”. She explains that users on Black Twitter have begun to use hashtags as a way to attract members of society with similar ideals to a single conversation in order to interact with each other and feel as though they are engaged in a “safe space”. Clark goes on further to characterize that the use of Black Twitter is critically important to the group as the conversation helps “cement the hashtag as a cultural artifact recognizable in the minds of both Black Twitter participants and individuals with no knowledge of the initial discussion”. She argues that hashtags have transitioned from serving just as a method of setting up conversation between separate parties to an underlying reason behind how users outside Black Twitter learn about the thoughts and feelings of African Americans in the present world.
Manjoo's article in Slate drew criticism from American and Africana Studies scholar Kimberly C. Ellis (Twitter user @drgoddess). She concluded that large parts of the article had generalised too much, and published a response to it titled "Why 'They' Don't Understand What Black People Do On Twitter." Pointing out the diversity of black people on Twitter, she said, "[I]t's clear that not only Slate but the rest of mainstream America has no real idea who Black people are, no real clue about our humanity, in general [...]. For us, Twitter is an electronic medium that allows enough flexibility for uninhibited and unfabricated creativity while exhibiting more of the strengths of social media that allow us to build community. [...] Actually, we talk to each other AND we broadcast a message to the world, hence the popularity of the Trending Topics and Twitter usage, yes?" Ellis said that the most appropriate response she had seen to the Slate article was that by Twitter user @InnyVinny, who made the point that "black people are not a monolith" and then presented a wide array of brown Twitter bird drawings on her blogsite in order to express the diverse range of Black Twitter users; the #browntwitterbird hashtag immediately went viral, as users adopted or suggested new Twitter birds.
According to Shani O. Hilton (@shani_o) writing in 2013, the defining characteristic of Black Twitter is that its members "a) are interested in issues of race in the news and pop culture and b) tweet A LOT." She adds that while the community includes thousands of black Twitter users, in fact "not everyone within Black Twitter is black, and not every black person on Twitter is in Black Twitter". She also notes that the viral reach and focus of Black Twitter's hashtags have transformed it from a mere source of entertainment, and object of outside curiosity, to "a cultural force in its own right ... Now, black folks on Twitter aren't just influencing the conversation online, they're creating it."
Apryl Williams and Doris Domoszlai (2013) similarly state, "There is no single identity or set of characteristics that define Black Twitter. Like all cultural groups, Black Twitter is dynamic, containing a variety of viewpoints and identities. We think of Black Twitter as a social construct created by a self-selecting community of users to describe aspects of black American society through their use of the Twitter platform. Not everyone on Black Twitter is black, and not everyone who is black is represented by Black Twitter."
Feminista Jones has argued that Black Twitter's historical cultural roots are the spirituals, or work songs, sung by slaves in the United States, when finding a universal means of communication was essential to survival and grassroots organization.
Several writers see Black Twitter interaction as a form of signifyin', wordplay involving tropes such as irony and hyperbole. André Brock states that the Black Tweeter is the signifier, while the hashtag is signifier, sign and signified, "marking ... the concept to be signified, the cultural context within which the tweet should be understood, and the 'call' awaiting a response." He writes: "Tweet-as-signifyin', then, can be understood as a discursive, public performance of Black identity."
Sarah Florini of UW-Madison also interprets Black Twitter within the context of signifyin'. She writes that race is normally "deeply tied to corporeal signifiers"; in the absence of the body, black users display their racial identities through wordplay and other language that shows knowledge of black culture. Black Twitter has become an important platform for this performance.
Florini notes that the specific construction of Twitter itself contributes to the ability for African Americans to signify on Black Twitter. She contends that “Twitter’s architecture creates participant structures that accommodate the crucial function of the audience during signifyin’”. By being able to see each other’s replies and retweets, the user base is able to jointly partake in an extended dialogue where each person tries to participate in the signifyin’. In addition, Florini adds that “Twitter mimics another key aspect of how signifyin’ games are traditionally played—speed”. Specifically, the retweets and replies are able to be sent so quickly that it replaces the need for the audience members to interact in person.
In addition the practices of signifying create a signalling that one is entering a communicative collective space rather than functioning as an individual. Tweets become part of Black Twitter by responding to the calls in the tag. Hashtags embody a performance of blackness through a transmission of racial knowledge into wordplay. Sarah Florini in particular focuses on how an active self-identification of blackness rejects notions of a post-racial society by disrupting the narratives of a color-blind society. This rejection of a post-racial society gets tied into the collective practices of performance by turning narratives such as the Republican National Conventions declaration of Rosa Parks ending racism into a moment of critique and ridicule under the guise of a game. Moments where performance of blackness meet social critique allow for the spaces of activism to be created. The Republican Party later rescinded their statement to acknowledge that racism was not over.
Manjoo referred to the hashtags the black community uses as "blacktags," citing Baratunde Thurston, then of The Onion, who argued that blacktags are a version of the dozens. Also an example of signifyin', this is a game popular with African Americans in which participants outdo each other by throwing insults back and forth ("Yo momma so bowlegged, she look like a bite out of a donut," "Yo momma sent her picture to the lonely hearts club, but they sent it back and said, 'We ain't that lonely!'"). According to Thurston, the brevity of tweets and the instant feedback mean Twitter fits well into the African tradition of call and response.
Having been the topic of a 2012 SXSW Interactive panel led by Kimberly Ellis, Black Twitter came to wider public attention in July 2013, when it was credited with having stopped a book deal between a Seattle literary agent and one of the jurors in the trial of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman – who had only been arrested and charged after a large-scale social media campaign including petitions circulated on Twitter that attracted millions of signatures – was controversially acquitted that month of charges stemming from the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in Florida. Black Twitter's swift response to the juror's proposed book, spearheaded by Twitter user Genie Lauren (@MoreAndAgain), who launched a change.org petition, resulted in coverage on CNN.
The community was also involved in June 2013 in protesting to companies selling products by Paula Deen, the celebrity chef, after she was accused of racism, reportedly resulting in the loss of millions of dollars' worth of business. A #paulasbestdishes hashtag game started by writer and humorist Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) went viral. In August 2013, outrage on Black Twitter over a Harriet Tubman "sex parody" video Russell Simmons had posted on his Def Comedy Jam website persuaded Simmons to remove the video; he apologized for his error in judgment.
The #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag was created by black feminist blogger/author Mikki Kendall in response to a highly public Twitter "meltdown" by male feminist Hugo Schwyzer, to highlight the belief that mainstream feminism caters to the needs of white women, while the concerns of black feminists are pushed to the side. The hashtag and subsequent conversations have been part of Black Twitter culture. In Kendall's own words: "#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen started in a moment of frustration. [...] When I launched the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, I thought it would largely be a discussion between people impacted by the latest bout of problematic behavior from mainstream white feminists. It was intended to be Twitter shorthand for how often feminists of color are told that the racism they experience 'isn't a feminist issue'. The first few tweets reflect the deeply personal impact of such a long-running structural issue."
After Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed resident Michael Brown, a high school student in Houston, Texas, named Tyler Atkins tweeted an informal photo of himself in casual clothes including a T-shirt and a bandana, and a second photo of himself posing with his prized saxophone. Atkins claimed that if the police shot him down, media would broadcast the photo of his wearing a T-shirt and a bandana and not the photo of him posing with his saxophone. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown spread virally in the course of worldwide social media attention paid to the Ferguson crisis. The hashtag was posted several hundred times in the weeks following Atkins' initial use of it.
The call and response aspects of a game where users work to outdo the other are exemplified in the creation of the Blacktag, #MigosSaid. Black Twitter engaged in a public display of using oral traditions to critique the hierarchy of pop culture. The movement stemmed from an initial tweet on 22 June 2014, when @Pipe_Tyson tweeted, "Migos best music group since the Beatles." This sparked an online joke where users began to use the hashtag #MigosSaid to examine lyrics of the popular rap group. While the game could widely be seen as a joke it also embodied a critique of popular representations of black artists. The hashtag made in fun was used to offer a counter argument to the view the Beatles and other white popular music figures are more culturally relevant than their black counterparts.
The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was created by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. They felt that African Americans received unequal treatment by law enforcement. Alicia Garza describes the hashtag as follows: "Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression."
The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was originally created in 2015 in response to the 87th Academy Awards lack of diversity amongst the nominees in major categories. The hashtag was used again when the nominations were announced for the 88th Academy Awards the following year. April Reign, activist and former attorney, who is credited with starting the hashtag, tweeted, "It's actually worse than last year. Best Documentary and Best Original Screenplay. That's it. #OscarsSoWhite." In addition, she includes that none of the Africa American cast of Straight Outta Compton was recognized, while the Caucasian screenwriter received nominations.
The #SayHerName hashtag was created in February 2015 as part of a gender-inclusive racial justice movement. The movement campaigns for black women in the United States against anti-Black violence and police violence. Gender-specific ways black women are affected by police brutality and anti-Black violence are highlighted in this movement, including the specific impact black queer women and black trans women encounter. The hashtag gained more popularity and the movement gained more momentum following Sandra Bland's death in police custody in July 2015. This hashtag is commonly used with #BlackLivesMatter, reinforcing the intersectionality of the movement.
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody is another hashtag that started trending after Sandra Bland's death. In the tweets, people ask what you would want people to know about you if you died in police custody?
The #ICantBreathe hashtag was created after the police killing of Eric Garner and the grand jury's decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer that choked Garner to death, on December 3, 2014. "I can't breathe" were Garner's final words and can be heard in the video footage of the arrest that led to his death. The hashtag trended for days and gained attention beyond Twitter. Basketball players, including Lebron James, wore shirts with the words for warm ups on December 8, 2014.
The #HandsUpDontShoot hashtag was created after the police shooting of Michael Brown and the grand jury's decision to not indict Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson police officer that shot Brown, on November 24, 2015. Witnesses claimed that Brown had his hands up and was surrendering when Wilson fatally shot him. However, this information was not credible and led to the jury's decision. Hands up, don't shoot is a slogan used by the Black Lives Matter movement and was used during protests after the ruling. The slogan was supported by members of the St. Louis Rams football team, who entered the field during a National Football League game holding their hands up. Using the hashtag on twitter was a form of showing solidarity with those protesting, show opposition to the decision, and bring attention to police brutality.
The #BlackOnCampus hashtag was started after multiple university officials resigned in Missouri, as well as other demonstrations at Ithaca College in New York, Smith College in Massachusetts, and Claremont McKenna College in California. The hashtag became an online discussion about racial inequality on college campuses, specifically microagressions, that some say are often overlooked by administrators and Caucasian students. The tweets shed light on the struggles that some black students endure at school and are seen as a call to action to address structural racism on campuses.
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, a former writer for The Root, cautions that Black Twitter is just a slice of contemporary African-American culture. "For people who aren't on the inside," he writes, "it's sort of an inside look at a slice of the black American modes of thought. I want to be particular about that—it's just a slice of it. Unfortunately, it may be a slice that confirms what many people already think they know about black culture."
Daniella Gibbs Leger (@dgibber123), writing in HuffPost Black Voices, said, "Black Twitter is a real thing. It is often hilarious (as with the Paula Deen recipes hashtag); sometimes that humor comes with a bit of a sting (see any hashtag related to Don Lemon)." Referring to the controversy over the Tubman video, she concluded, "1. Don't mess with Black Twitter because it will come for you. 2. If you're about to post a really offensive joke, take 10 minutes and really think about it. 3. There are some really funny and clever people out there on Twitter. And 4. See number 1."
While Black Twitter is used as a way to communicate within the black community, many people outside of said community and within do not understand the need to label it. This can be a subtle way of segregating black people on Twitter. In regards to this concern, Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of North Texas who studies black online communities, recalls one user's remarks, "Black Twitter is just Twitter."
Additional criticism of Black Twitter is the lack of intersectionality. One example is the tweets made after the rapper, Tyga, was pictured with transsexual actress, Mia Isabella. Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, explained the importance of intersectionality and makes it one of the priorities in the movement. She wrote that many people find certain "charismatic black men" more appealing, which leaves "sisters, queers, trans, and disable [black] folk [to] take up roles in the background."
Kenichi Serino writes in The Christian Science Monitor that South Africa is experiencing a similar Black Twitter phenomenon, with black discourse on Twitter becoming increasingly influential. In a country that has 11 official languages, Black Twitter users regularly embed words from isiZulu, isiXhosa, and Sesotho in their tweets. Twitter had 1.1 million users in South Africa as of 2011. Tweeting is still a middle-class activity in that country, where just 21 percent have access to the Internet, but according to journalism lecturer Unathi Kondile, blacks have taken to Twitter as "a free online platform where black voices can assert themselves and their views without editors or publishers deciding if their views matter."
#FeesMustFall was the most significant hashtag in South African Black Twitter. It started with a student led protest movement that began in mid October 2015 in response to an increase in fees at South African universities. The protests also called for higher wages for low earning university staff who worked for private contractors such as cleaning services and campus security and for them to be employed directly by universities.
Black Students took to Twitter to report about the protest because they believed that the media was distorting their views and what the protest was about. One of the most retweeted tweets of the protest was "The Revolution Won't Be Televised, It Will Be Tweeted"