Black Twitter in Capital Letters

Black Twitter phenom "W.E.B.B.I.E. DuBois" discusses the meaning of the social media powerhouse.

Even Chris Rock and Rihanna thought tweeter "W.E.B.B.I.E. DuBois" was actually W.E.B. Du Bois.

But it wasn't a quote from the black abolitionist and scholar. It was a tweet from the world of Black Twitter, showing just how powerful this ecosystem of cultural, academic, political, and everyday people who were behind the #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown movements has become.

In July, the Los Angeles Times announced that it hired a reporter who is supposed to "both create stories with and pull stories from those worlds."  But news of his hiring was met with two strong questions: What exactly is Black Twitter and should a mainstream media source be let in?

Next America turned Vann Newkirk, a policy analyst in Washington and the man behind the popular handle @fivefifths. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does someone report on Black Twitter?

There are two ways you can go about it. One way is the bad way, which is sort of being an aggregator. You take the surface level things, which already happens in a lot of media. I hope that he [Dexter Thomas] takes a deeper look at it. Black Twitter is not a monolith. The thing that most people call Black Twitter varies from the very specific to the greater Black experience on Twitter. It's all part of a narrative of African-American history, African-American linguistics and anthropology. How does art develop? How do emojis and slang develop? That would have a lot of promise.

When people say Black Twitter, does that mean specific people in conversation or is it different conversations happening amongst different people?

I look at it as two different things. Black Twitter capitalized. And that is a very specific group of people. I always check when someone aggregates, "Black Twitter said this," and see how many people I know. But when you look at the black experience on Twitter, there are millions of black people on Twitter that I don't know. I only follow a couple thousand people. But there are kids in Chicago, in rural Georgia, all over the country where the slang filters through and the experience makes its way to this thing called Black Twitter in capital letters.

Slang and culture filter through?

That's how you can identify Black Twitter's influence. The example that comes to mind is the 100 emoji. Kids started using it to say, "Keeping it 100," which is an old hip-hop phrase. They began using it. Now, it's almost always—in a certain context—universally understood on its own as authenticity. Once it's recognized by Black Twitter, it becomes part of mainstream culture.

Understanding Black Twitter, though, takes a lot of context.

There are high-context and low-context cultures. High-context cultures are mostly with people of color. Context is loaded into the community. They end up needing to use fewer words. Each word carries more. Low-context cultures happen when there aren't a lot of shared experiences. So, they use more words. Black Twitter is a great example of being high-context. That's one of the biggest hallmarks of Black Twitter: You see things that seem like non-sequiturs from the outside that are totally understood within.

"Once it's recognized by Black Twitter, it becomes part of mainstream culture."

Once you actually know"...

It's a cipher.

Maybe folks who aren't people of color don't understand it.

It's an age-old game. It's been around as long as black culture has been a distinct culture in the United States. You look at Miles Davis. Miles Davis to me is the predecessor of Black Twitter. It's the whole jazz movement where "cool" came from. The word "cool" as we use it is all Miles. And Miles was like, "I'm sick of all these white people using my slang." So he kept thinking of new slang. He was taking that cipher from slaves who would speak in code, not in a way to transmit crucial information, but in a way to be heard—as a form of speech and not be scrutinized for it. There is an element of Black Twitter that generates slang to not be understood by the establishment. It's an authenticity check.

So is it the duty of that L.A. Times reporter to explain Black Twitter to other people or does he need to participate in Black Twitter?

It's tough to me. I'm not sure how effective you can be as a beat writer if you're too immersed in the beat itself. If you're a member of Black Twitter and actively tweeting the way I think you need to be able to understand the subject, that's your life. Your life is your job. It is his duty to explain it to the larger audience. That's what he's hired to do. Cynicism aside, I hope this isn't an exploitative measure where they generate traffic based on controversy, aggregation. The coverage really has to play a role as a cultural ambassador.

Then how could he cover Black Twitter effectively?

A really good Black Twitter beat would be someone who would go out and talk to kids using Twitter in Mobile, Alabama, to get funding for a rec center—those types of stories. The coverage now is very outrage oriented. Look at #BlackLivesMatter. We were mad for a reason. But when you only tap them when they're mad, it's only going to look like people are always mad. There are bits of joy. Show how they're connecting people across the country. There's something amazing happening for young black men. One of the biggest issues for inner-city poverty and concentrated poverty is they don't experience things outside of their worldview. So you get people connected very intimately across the country and it's something we couldn't think of just a few years ago.

"There is an element of Black Twitter that generates slang to not be understood by the establishment. It's an authenticity check."

And you're conscious of people trying to look in and understand it?

If people had been approached from an understanding perspective from the beginning, it would be a totally different dialogue now. But so much of what has happened has been a very specific targeted thing—a very specific group of people who are outrage-minded. We don't listen to you and feel your outrage. It's frustrating. One of the great things of a well-done Black Twitter segment would be something that gives a voice to black folks on Twitter who aren't outraged and not saying something outrageous.

Black Twitter influencers vary.

It's a very wide array. It's another thing that mirrors black culture. It's a very wide diversity of education, background, regional background, experiences. There are people on a lot of lists who have gone to prison. There are people on lists that didn't finish high school. There are people on lists who have Ph.Ds—multiple Ph.Ds. It's a very wide spectrum. That's why I love Twitter.

Black Twitter is a support network, too.

It's not just what's cool. We want to show what lies beneath. It's a very vital support network. It's an organizing platform, as the only way that Black Lives Matter exists. It gets play in entertainment a lot. What you're looking at is a hybrid entertainment network plus a fully functional and self-aware civil-rights network. I look at the Southern Christian Leader Conference, MLK's organization. I look at the structure they have. A lot of what they had in place is similar to what's in Black Twitter.

A modern day SCLC?

I believe it can be that.