When Slate, the online magazine, published Farhad Manjoo’s “How Black People Use Twitter” in August 2010, the piece became the second work in mainstream media (well, the second one that this participant observer noticed) to fetishize the communication of Black Internet users who were connecting across the microblogging platform. Choire Sicha had done the same nearly a year before, writing on his blog and website, The Awl, that “late night Black people Twitter… is awesome.”
In the years since, and certainly in the last few weeks, the phrase #BlackTwitter has come to serve as media shorthand for Black people performing race in communication and carrying out private conversations in public spaces (Schudson, 1997). Colloquially speaking, when people talk about Black Twitter, they’re talking about the hashtags, the memes, the jokes and digital personalities modeled in Issa Rae’s “The Black Twitter Party” seem to define Black Twitter as a singular online community. In doing so, they overlook the nuance within these personal communication communities (Gruzd et al., 2007) linked by shared experiences of being Black in America. They ignore the fact that these conversations and communication patterns have existed since the days of Freedom’s Journal, the Black literature salon, the weekly Black paper, Ebony, Jet, Essence, the corner, the barbershop, the hair salon, then nail salon, the church, sorority meeting, family reunion, BlackPlanet, MySpace, LiveJournal and the like. These conceptualizations paint Black Twitter as either humorous or political, but not both. They ignore the sense of community that is fostered through simple acts such as tweeting a daily greeting of “good morning” to friends from college, strangers with like political attitudes and allies. They miss the detail in building a social structure through ongoing online interactions among participants.
#BlackTwitter, through the power of numbers, has proven its ability to wrench a certain degree of social control from media gatekeepers, and thus compels a new narrative about the black existence in digital spaces. How, then, do we begin to talk about that?