Black Twitter - Contagious Hashtags

Curator's Note

What is Black Twitter? Why isn’t there a Black Facebook, Instagram or YouTube? Is there something unique about Twitter which lends itself to being captured by ‘race’? The alternative visual representations of black (or brown) Twitter birds have become iconic for contestations over a racialized, networked Twitter-sphere.

The question of ‘What is Black Twitter?’ has produced commentary concerned with the demographics of users, their identity and cultural practices. Apryl Williams and Doris Domoszlai highlight the diversity of Black Twitter as a social construct through which the performance of a networked cultural identity is activated. For example, Black Twitter is replete with humour through the wordplay of ‘the dozens’, and creation of trending racial hashtags such as #onlyintheghetto. Furthermore, Black Twitter can co-ordinate political interventions, for instance, the anti-racist hashtag #dangerousblackchildren, provocatively commented on the conviction of Michael Dunn for opening fire at a group of black teenagers.

Arguably, there isn’t an equivalent alternative Black social media platform because other sites such as Facebook et al don’t exhibit the technological affordances that can make possible ‘Black Twitter’. That is, the techno-social characteristics of Twitter - its viral hashtags, network structures and algorithms – play a significant role in the production of a digital race assemblage.

Black Twitter operates on multiple registers, though what’s prominent is the sheer force of the production of associated racial hashtags. These hashtags express inventive modes of social critique, creating a kind of online Black zeitgeist. Twitter hashtags can generate ‘ad-hoc’ communities and affliative social connections.

While Twitter is a vast social network it exhibits a ‘small world’ phenomenon: the possibility of densely connected users - such as ‘people of color’ online groupings - rapidly propagating information across the whole network. The contagious quality of racialized hashtags, especially through viral practices of re-tweeting, results in the visibility of Black Twitter. Furthermore, the algorithm determining which hashtags trend in Twitter is sensitive to the novelty of topics and velocity of tweeting. The imagined community of Black Twitter appears adept at ‘gaming the system’.

However, rather than conceiving Black Twitter in terms of collective ethno-racial behaviour, it’s better grasped via networked effects and affects, as emergent aggregations materialized by the propagation of racial hashtags and production of contagious social connections. Black Twitter multiplies the possibilities of being raced online.

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