It’s a Sunday morning in the summer of 2007, and I’m sitting on a stiff wooden pew in a small church in Oklahoma. I’m sweating through a paisley cotton dress, and my grandfather is standing at the pulpit, shouting. “Amens” and “won’t He do its” fill the brief pauses in the sermon when my grandfather stops to gasp for air. After the three-hour-long sermon about the fate of our souls, the congregation lingers to discuss matters much less holy. From talk about the young couple in the neighborhoods divorce—to gossip around a young black presidential hopeful—to organizing dinner duty for an older widow in the congregation, the church came alive as it morphed into safe space for community-focused conversation. For black Americans, there are deep roots in the tradition of community organization.
Church, more than a house of worship, traditionally served as a place where blacks were encouraged to vote, engaged in arts and music, learned about the importance of civic associations, economic development and leadership at a time when we were not afforded equal rights to public spaces. Instrumental in the tradition of activism, it helped blacks to become proactive in making changes in American society for the better. Sixty-five years after the start of the civil rights movement with the introduction of technology and social media, the methods in which black people interact with one another and mobilize has changed, but the spaces we inhabit in the digital world remain just as complex and interconnected.
Twitter has reshaped many facets of modern life, from the way politicians interact with their constituents, or the way news is broken, to the way Americans find out who our president’s chosen enemy of the day is.
While the social media site is huge, it’s not one single community. There’s Feminist Twitter, where discourse is focused on gender equality, there’s Sports Twitter, where people spar over who will win the national championship, there’s Academic Twitter, where free syllabi are created and shared between the inquisitive, there’s even French Twitter. However, perhaps the most talked about “Twitterverse,” is Black Twitter. Because people’s feeds are tailored to whom they follow, you may never see the daily discourse that takes place there if you aren’t looking for it.
The term is used to describe a large network of black Twitter users and their interactions that often accumulate into trending topics due to the network’s size and interconnectedness.
Black Twitter is its own microcosm amongst the many users and identitieswithin the social media platform, and it has become a force to be reckoned with.
One of the moments that carried the online community into mainstream media was the summer of 2015 after a 28-year-old woman named Sandra Bland was found hanged in a jail cell three days after she was pulled over by a Texas police officer in a routine traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but those who knew her remain unconvinced. What really happened over the span of her final days is still a mystery. The confusion around how a woman could go from getting a speeding ticket to being dead in prison over a span of 72 hours sent shockwaves through the black community. Soon after, along with the hashtag #Say- HerName, a call to validate and include black women’s narratives in the Black Lives Matter movement, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody was tweeted with sobering descriptions of what black people hoped their friends and family would know if their fate mimicked that of Bland’s over 16,500 times in just seven days. The hashtag was trending on Twitter for days, forcing the reality of black American life into the larger public.
Following this, hashtags like #OscarSoWhite following the 2015 nominations where not a single person of color was nominated for lead or supporting actor categories, and #YouOKSis, a hashtag started to raise awareness about street harassment, not only went viral but became globally recognizable movements. Through Twitter, the cultural tradition of activism can reach further and organize more quickly than was possible in the past.
“BLACK TWITTER IS ITS OWN MICROCOSM AMONGST THE MANY USERS AND IDENTITIES WITHIN THE SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM, AND IT HAS BECOME A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH.”
However, on Black Twitter conversations are tied to the specific cultural context of living in America while black, and as they are all coming from one community, they are able to be archived and built upon.
Meredith Clark, a professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, explained the idea behind normal participation within Black Twitter in an interview stating, “In order to understand the conversation, you have to have what oneresearcher, (James C. Scott), has called a ‘hidden transcript.’ You must have the cultural background to understand the conversation as it’s playing out. There’s use of metaphor, there’s use of culturally resonant language.”
While important social movements have been started on Black Twitter, some of the tactics used to shed light on injustices have been critiqued as an overreach. Alexander Hurst, a journalist, living in Paris explained that he had to refocus his Twitter because of the constant “culture wars” going on within the platform. He finds that “Black Twitter has formed this kind of vigilante culture,” because of the lack of institutional justice black Americans have in reality.
It’s not uncommon for a discussion on Black Twitter to quickly form around “canceling” someone, no longer morally, financially or digitally supporting someone, because of something distasteful resurfacing that they may have said years ago.
Amari Bing-Way, a black American student said, “I’m scared of it. Black Twitter is ruthless. It’s interesting because people will fight for you, but then they will also try to fight you at the same time. It’s a difficult platform.”
It’s true that because of the viral nature of the platform, sensational arguments and negative discussions can quickly get out of hand. With only 240 characters, it’s nearly impossible to contextualize topics. “It’s not the place for profound nuanced discussion. If you are reading a 3,000-word article, even if you disagree, the argument is completely laid out, you can see what the person is trying to say. Sure, Twitter has threads, but there still aren’t enough characters to tackle issues that may span across decades,” Hurst said. This is a problem for all of Twitter, but it becomes even more blatant when issues with historical implications like institutional racism are up for debate.
While Twitter, for better or worse, has been an environment which promotes the loudest users, sometimes creating anenvironment where problematic voices can rise to the top, it is an environment where users have an equal playing field.
This allows black users to meaningfully connect with one another across borders, education levels and socioeconomic lines. Users find solace in almost suspiciously similar childhood memories through hashtags like #GrowingUp- Black, or through discussing cultural moments like the BET Awards. The interactions on Black Twitter are powerful, so much so that television shows with black audiences are deliberate about engaging with their audiences on Twitter.
“I’m more of a ghost Twitter user, so to say, but I tend to spiral into the depths of Black Twitter to see what’s going on in my community, my worldwide black community,” Alyssa Belton, a black American woman living in Paris explained. For her, it’s something that she feels is extremely useful for connections throughout the diaspora, “It would’ve been nice to have when I was a bit younger being from a very diverse, yet very non-black area. I think it’s really cool.”
The actors and producers from the HBO hit “Insecure,” a show following the life of a black twenty-something living in California, live tweet about every moment along with viewers. It’s an easy way to get the show trending on the platform as well as gauging their audience’s reactions to each episode in a way that feels authentic. For many, the show is a comedic, realistic depiction of black American lives, and the connections viewers make with the characters overflow into their interactions on Twitter.
“YOU MUST HAVE THE CULTURAL BACKGROUND TO UNDERSTAND THE CONVERSATION AS IT’S PLAYING OUT. THERE’S USE OF METAPHOR, THERE’S USE OF CULTURALLY RESONANT LANGUAGE.”
There is beauty in the kinship that can be found across the diaspora thanks to Twitter, but the idea of such a strong shared cultural identity raises some questions about individuality. “There’s this pressure to keep up that comes with black online spaces. I feel bad for scrolling past certain things, I know no one’s watching me, but I feel like there’s a silent judgment if I don’t retweet or repost something that’s happening in the black community,” Bing-Way continued, “Sometimes it’s like why do Ihave to ‘cancel’ people, just because Black Twitter says so?” She feels that with so much visibility, there is a pressure to be constantly representing and in align with the accepted ideas on Black Twitter.
While there may be pressure to conform in some instances, Black Twitter allows black users to talk about stories that aren’t necessarily always considered in mainstream media as well as control the discourse around their own narratives.
For a long time, the only places that black people could do this was within designated spaces in their own communities. Traditionally, spaces like barbershops, churches and ‘cookouts’ have been the holy grail of spaces for black connections. These conversations were held in safe spaces where families and neighborhoods could let loose, talk about politics, and the realities of being black in America when discourse of that nature wasn’t necessarily welcome in the public eye.
Along with new spaces allowing for larger, more interconnected interactions, deciding which conversations should be public becomes much more complicated. On the one hand, many of the discussions had on Black Twitter are purposeful calls to action; on the other hand, others may be more like everyday conversation. Because all discourse takes place on a
public platform, what may have been something said to a friend in a barbershop with cultural and physical context, now becomes privy to dissection. Who is allowed to engage and benefit from those conversations is debated.
Hurst feels, “You can’t force people out of a public discussion. If someone walks into the middle of the street and starts screaming out obscenities, the people that are around are by default involved in that conversation. Is it not the same on Twitter?”
On the privacy of the discourse that takes place within Black Twitter, Clark calls them, “public-private conversations,” she explains that although they are happening, you do not necessarily have the right to use it in any way you’d like. She explains that they “give you an opportunity to learn from someone where you don’t necessarily have to interact with them.”
Twitter not only serves as a new connecting platform for blacks all over the country but has taken our lingo, ideas and thoughts mainstream in the United States and abroad. Amir Baylly a model of French and Rwandan descent, explained, “In France, we don’t talk about race. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it, unlike Americans. We can use Black Twitter and the way black Americans have used the platform to mobilize, as a map for how to talk about activism. It can help us create new ways to talk about race in Europe, but we can’t base our activism solely on American tradition, because our plights, while similar, are not identical.”
Black Twitter is a place to which we can turn to see black people being political, hilarious, concerned and celebrated. It’s an interwoven alliance of black people throughout the world. “Twitter is only a jumping off point, there has to be more action and more representation of the diversity within blackness because while we have similarities, we are our own people and we don’t all think the same,” said Bing-Way. Black Twitter, like black America, is complicated, diverse and eager for change, and that is worth celebrating.
“THERE IS BEAUTY IN THE KINSHIP THAT CAN BE FOUND ACROSS THE DISAPORA THANKS TO TWITTER, BUT THE IDEA OF SUCH A STRONG SHARED CULTURAL IDENTITY RAISES SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT INDIVIDUALITY.”