The Truth About Black Twitter

Complex, influential, and far more meaningful than the sum of its social justice-driven hashtags

Black Twitter is a force. It’s also not particularly well understood by those who aren’t a part of it. The term is used to describe a large network of black Twitter users and their loosely coordinated interactions, many of which accumulate into trending topics due to the network’s size, interconnectedness, and unique activity.

This was the network largely responsible for focusing the nation’s attention to the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. Witnesses to Brown’s killing broke the news via social media. Within moments, their accounts of what happened spread through the Twittersphere with the hashtags #Ferguson and #MikeBrown.

And then there are the hashtag campaigns. #YouOKSis raises awareness for street harassment, #IAmJada calls for solidarity for victims of sexual assault, #BringBackOurGirls forces attention to the abduction of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, and #BlackLivesMatter gives voice to the ongoing movement to reform police practices. Black Twitter has also used its power to launch campaigns that criticize the incidents of racial tone deafness that are all too common across media. #EpicBraidLevels skewered Marie Claire's bizarre praise for Kendall Jenner’s cornrows. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown illustrated the pejorative selection of images used in news stories about black victims of police shootings. Don Lemon, one of cable news’ most controversial broadcasters, has also been called out by Black Twitter for his routinely offensive #DonLemonLogic.

Black Twitter is also the subject of academic inquiry. Researchers at the University of Southern California are currently engaged in one study to answer the question, “What is Black Twitter?” Late last year, Meredith Clark, a professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, completed research with the goal of establishing a theoretical framework for exploring Black Twitter.

I spoke with Clark to discuss Black Twitter, its composition, activities, and impact. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Donovan X. Ramsey: How do you define Black Twitter?

Meredith Clark: I define Black Twitter as a temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference. And when I say "black," that isn't just limited to U.S. blacks, but blacks throughout the diaspora, and I think a lot of what we see reflects on blacks just in the U.S., but I do want to make that distinction clear, that it is not just of a matter of what we talk about here in the United States.

I break Black Twitter down into three levels of connection: personal community, and that reflects the people that you are connected with in some other dimension other than Twitter. And I take that personal community from Barry Wellman's work. The second level I find is thematic notes, and that's where individuals specifically tweet together about certain topics, so they keep returning to this subject matter. And those thematic notes could be anything from television shows, to ideologies, topics of religion. They might be centric to where these individuals are in a certain part of the country. It just kind of all depends on what topic we're interested in. And then that third level of connection, where we see a lot of conversation about these networks and how they're linked, is when those personal communities and the thematic notes kind of intersect around a specific topic. And generally you see that, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #AskRKelly, those sort of things. That's where you see the meta-network at work.

Ramsey: Are you a member of Black Twitter?

Clark: I self-select as part of Black Twitter, yes.

Ramsey: Was there something specific that inspired your research into Black Twitter?

Clark: So, in 2010, as I was wrapping up my job at the Tallahassee Democrat, I found an article from Slate that had the headline, "How Black People Use Twitter." And what I read in the article wasn't at all reflective of how the black people that I knew used Twitter, what their interactions were, what they talked about, what hashtags they used, so on and so forth. And being a journalist I am particularly sensitive to media's representation of black life, especially when there are so many black people out there that you can talk to. I kind of took it and held onto it for a couple of years. Later, I decided it was a community that I was interested in studying and it just kind of went from there.

Ramsey: One interesting thing about your research is the way you outline the six-stage process of “being Black Twitter.” Can you break that down for me?

Clark: What I observed in my research was this process that the communicators went to, specifically to find some sort of redress as far as the media was concerned. That process started with first identifying as a black person who is interested in the topic that is being discussed. You kind of have to have that background and a comprehension of the language that's being used to talk about whatever the issue of the day is.

Then there’s self-selection, which is deciding to actually participate in the conversation. And participation is marked by a certain degree of performance. That performance could be choosing to use a hashtag, choosing to use the semantic content in your tweet to make a very specific point. It could be re-tweeting or saving somebody's tweet. These are ways of indicating to other people, both those that follow you and those who are part of this conversation, that you’re invested in this conversation.

After that performance, there's affirmation. You see a lot of conversation back and forth between people about things. That lets communicators know that they are not alone in this conversation, that there is someone there that's paying attention that is willing to be engaged.

And then re-affirmation. And that's when you see the conversations that are had online reflected in offline spaces. So when you see them being covered by certain news media personalities; when you and your girlfriend talk about something that came up on Twitter a couple days ago; when you see panel discussions and public forums that use information that's spread via Twitter. You specifically see this with hashtags.

The last part of the process is what I call “vindication.” That’s looking for some kind of change in the physical world. And we've seen that where people lose jobs, where people make public apologies for things that they have said that have been brought to light via Twitter.

Ramsey: That response touched on something that I'm pretty interested in, which are the ways that Black Twitter interactions manifest in real-world connections. Are there other ways that you've seen the network recreated in day-to-day life?

Clark: Oh absolutely. You see it on the very small one-to-one levels where people... I mean you can watch as people make plans with one another to do something very simple like "Hey, you wanna go for a drink?" I saw two communicators that I follow do that just a couple of days ago. And then you see people planning actual events. There have been tweet-ups that involve people from multiple states. Most recently one of the things that I followed was Feminista Jones held a book release party. And the way the people found out about it... Yeah the way that she advertised it was on Twitter, and people came. So, yeah, absolutely I see that happening.

Ramsey: And in your research you write about the diversity within Black Twitter. How does that internal diversity impact the network at large?

Clark: So one of the problems that I had with early coverage of Black Twitter was that people were referring to it as if this phenomenon represented just one, for lack of a better phrase, just one shade of blackness. Black people are also gay people. Black people are also trans people. Black people are feminists, and black people do not identify as feminists. The different interests, the different backgrounds. Any descriptor that you can use to talk about a group of people applies to Black Twitter. So when people get together and they talk around a specific topic you have diversity within those conversational circles.

You may have someone who is trans and that person will type up during a discussion and say, "Well, this is actually being thought about from a cisgendered perspective." Or you may have a person who identifies as LGBTQ and says, "Whatever it is that we're talking about is being discussed from a heteronormative perspective." Or someone who has struggled socioeconomically and saying, "We're making a lot of assumptions about what people of a certain class can and will do, and why they do it." So every different descriptor that you can think of for people in this world applies to those individuals who are conversing and who identify, and are identified as part of Black Twitter.

Ramsey: Now, a lot of the interest around Black Twitter is focused on the hashtags and trending topics it creates. You’ve written that those tagged conversations can require a certain level of black cultural competency. What do you mean by that?

Clark: In order to understand the conversation, you have to have what one researcher, [James C.] Scott, has called "a hidden transcript." You have to 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. I told someone last night, "We don't believe you, you need more people." And it's directly from the Jay Z song, but if you don't know Jay Z and if you don't know that that's a rap lyric, you're going to miss it. And the person I was talking to did. He didn't get it at all.

So those hashtags in so many ways are indicators of a certain degree of cultural competency. To understand some of them, and I stress “some,” you have to understand African-American vernacular English. To understand others, you need to have historical perspective on the issue. And so a lot of that rises out of a common experience of living as a black person, and specifically to living as a black person in the United States.

Ramsey: A major finding of your research had to do with the events following the murder trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. In the weeks that followed, there was juror who landed a book deal, and that caused a stir throughout Black Twitter with lots of people protesting using #jurorB37. Ultimately the book deal was cancelled and lots of media outlets attributed that to the blowback on Twitter. You found that wasn’t exactly the case?

Clark: Yes. So, I initially chose that case because it was kind of easy to nail down and the thing that I was looking for in the tweets that I analyzed and in the narratives that I analyzed were people using this #jurorB37 to draw attention to the pending book deal. And when I look back through tweets that I chose on the days in question, that is from the interview to the time the book contract was cancelled, it wasn't so much that people were using specifically #jurorB37, it was that people were talking about Juror B37 in their tweets period. So if you were looking for the petition, you didn't necessarily have to include the hashtag to find it. It was enough to use just the term "Juror B37.” It may not seem like a big deal, but it's to me a reminder that Black Twitter’s activity is not limited to hashtags. And that kind of refutes what you've seen in terms of news media coverage, because if it's there's not a hashtag, if it's not easily indexed then they tend to pass over it.

Ramsey: This discussion of hashtags brings me to some questions about the role of public-private conversation. It seems that many of the conversation had within Black Twitter are purposeful and have some public utility. What would you say is the role of the public-private conversation in the black community and on Black Twitter?

Clark: First, and the point that a number of people miss is that, even though this conversation is being had in a public space, similar to the conversations that are had in third spaces. Just because you're privy to it doesn't necessarily mean that you can use it any way that you like. As journalists, you and I would take ethical issue with quoting and using someone's name, information that we overheard by virtue of being in the same place as someone else. If you turned in a story tomorrow with a quotes from a person that you knew that you weren't talking to, but you simply overheard their conversation at Starbucks tomorrow, your editor would look at you crazy.

But those public-private conversations do give you an opportunity to learn from someone where you don't necessarily have to interact with them. Where people have those conversations, their timelines are public and they are engaging in conversations so that other people are able to see it. You can take it as a learning opportunity. That's something that a number of my participants mentioned to me, that they did not mind that people were reading their timelines, were listening to those conversations. In some cases, those conversations were indeed meant to teach people about things that they did not know about. In some cases, they are a way to avoid the awkward workplace conversations with a person who's from a different cultural group, and still give someone some very necessary information.

Ramsey: I’m also interested in the ways you’ve observed Black Twitter disrupting legacy media.

Clark: That's probably one of the most interesting parts of the research to me, to watch how media might change the focus of the story, or make changes to their reporting, and to see some of those changes take place after there's been a big dust-up on Twitter. In my research, I can only point to some correlated things, not necessarily causes. But take for instance the TV writer Alessandra Stanley, who wrote about the women of Shondaland and how Viola Davis wasn't “classically beautiful.” There was tremendous blowback on Twitter. The New York Times tried to downplay it as a mob and overblown, but they were still forced to respond. Ten years ago, the only way they would've been forced to respond would be by a massive letter-writing campaign.

Another example was when the Times’  Tanzina Vega reported on the media representation of black shooting victims and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. If not for Black Twitter, and if not for people deciding to participate in this hashtag and in this conversation about how black victims were depicted in national news media, the Times wouldn't have that story to put on the front page of its website. That's response to something that people were talking about online, and the only way that you would've gotten a similar response five, 10, 15 years ago, again would be by a massive letter-writing campaign.

Ramsey: What do researchers and journalists get wrong most often when writing and thinking about Black Twitter?

Clark: One problem that I have, and this is because I'm an ethnographer, is when writers simply copy and paste tweets from Twitter. And as a researcher, that's problematic because these individuals haven't consented to having their information used in that way. Even though Twitter's terms of service say that what you put there is public, and it might be used in a certain way. We're now starting to see blowback from individuals who never really see that coming.

And then I just don't see enough engagement with these individuals who are starting certain hashtags, raising particular conversations. The fact that I don't see them directly quoted, and the fact that I don't see them being interviewed, I don't see widespread efforts to actually understand their views, their community, the people that they're tweeting with and to. That's an issue.