A Comprehensive Study of Black Twitter

 

We take a deep dive into one of the world’s most prominent cultural forces and it’s many (hilarious!) antics: Black Twitter

Originally published in Issue 02 of Roundtable Journal

 

According to Wikipedia, Black Twitter is “a cultural identity… focused on issues of interest to the black community, particularly in the United States.” Yes, Black Twitter has its own Wikipedia page and I live. Black Twitter (which I’ll henceforth refer to as BT) however, is so much more than a mere twitter-based hive. It is not just limited to African Americans either; it is a worldwide tour de force. From sharing your #blacksalonproblems (which I’m 100% convinced is a universal black girl experience,  it is seminal, it is the cornerstone), to dismantling systematically oppressive organisations, BT does it all and so much more. In fact, walk into any black salon now and I guarantee that you’ll find a hub of black people of all ages from various cultural backgrounds congregated and exchanging all sorts of information. The latest neighbourhood shenanigans, celebrity gossip, cooking tips, fond memories, political statistics and general information on any service you may require are all found in the black salon and it’s online counterpart that is BT. It has been referred to as the modern day ‘Negro work song’ in that it entails a complex mode of communication developed within the community to express pain, anger and often times, joy. Its beauty is in its mutability.

I came to BT for the social justice, and I stayed for the banter. I had briefly encountered aspects of BT numerous times beforehand, but had not realised how integral it would later become to my worldview. I became much more aware of the community when like many others, I was following the George Zimmerman case in the summer of 2013. By then, I had already stacked up a good 4 years on the platform but was using it purely for leisure and niche interests. I was volunteering abroad when the case was coming to a close and Twitter swiftly became my primary and most convenient source of information about it. When news of his acquittal came out, I was devastated, along with many others. As a black person, there are many moments in life that can make you feel isolated, helpless and even unloved. This was one of them. It was also when #BlackLivesMatter first began as a reminder to many who had lost hope on that day, that they were valued. That was the moment that despite being thousands of miles away, I felt like I was part of a community. After that pivotal juncture, I began to notice that many movements like the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the #VoteReady initiative, #YouOKsis and #BringBackOurGirls were conceived through BT.

In just a few years, BT has become such an influential online and offline presence that BET announced it will be partnering with Twitter to conduct a study on Black Twitter. It will collect data from the most popular hashtags from 2014 onwards and by the time you’re reading this, their results may have already been released.

Part of BT’s strength is in the fact that Twitter is simultaneously, a public and private platform. You can maintain an intimate 50 followers but with a public account, anyone is free to retweet anything you post and this is where the fun begins. Through sheer luck or an algorithm (or let’s be honest, both), the right retweet can lead to another, then another and that tweet can rapidly gain thousands of RTs. BT is massive, manifold and incredibly meta. Take the petty family meme for example, or the crying Michael Jordan face or even the nuggets of wisdom conveyed with a picture of good old RS from #HoodDocumentaries for example. One can’t really pin down why they blew up beyond BT but they did and so did countless other memes.

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Another factor to the magnitude of BT is that it sees everything. No small detail will be overlooked and this means that no one is safe. Whilst this is part of the charm of the collective, it also adds a hint of intimidation to it. Every selfie must be A1, every joke must land, every statement backed with adequate receipts and even then, you might still become the target of a roast. That’s a lot of pressure, right? Granted, this phenomenon isn’t limited to BT, it’s just part and parcel of the call out culture that we have cultivated. It does feel a little bit more highlighted in this particular community because it can easily become an echo chamber of sorts. For example, in the past couple of hours of writing this, a particular section of British Black Twitter was celebrating the downfall of a popular vlogger who goes by the name of Patricia Bright. It all happened so quickly and she took the incendiary tweets down almost immediately but not before an eagle-eyed, quick-thinking tweeter took a screenshot.

Clearly, what she said regarding the UK elections most definitely wasn’t in good taste, it was misguided and insensitive at best. Afterwards, numerous tweeters of colour pounced on her, began dragging her for filth (as I type this, they still are), mocked her family and declared that she was “cancelled.” She was even accused of being a Tory, of which there is hardly any proof. Whilst I understand the anger and disappointment, it seemed to me that many people were just waiting for a chance to deride her. It strikes me as ungracious to take pleasure in tearing down the people that we have placed on pedestals and it denies them the chance to genuinely learn from their mistakes. After all, if a group of people club together to attack you and your family, chances are you’re going to want to defend yourself. We have to make peace with the fact that our faves are problematic, all of them. Cheering their downfall – as fun as that may be – is not the same as educating them on their wrongdoings. On the bright side (no pun intended), the hawk eyes of BT have given us much humour as well. Case in point:

 
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When it comes to the less frivolous, BT is quick to highlight all sorts of antics and keep people in check. Ok, yes it is a bit daunting but best believe, you’ll want to come correct on Twitter under its watchful eye. Take @og_pocahontas as an example. When she posted a mirror selfie, an observant tweeter was quick to photoshop a nicer backdrop for her:

Og_pocahontas took it all in stride with good humour and used the exposure that she had gained to promote herself further. We have seen countless other selfies critiqued for the streakiness of the mirrors or for the poses contorted to the point of farce. Fake deep men have been called out for the slightly misogynistic undertones to their praise “black Queens.” Posers have been called out for, well...just that. Many an unseasoned dish has been denounced and it has all provided much comeradery. The trick is to take any L you may receive from BT in stride as it is ultimately character forming. When things don’t get too deep, even an admonishment from BT can be fun!


One cannot pinpoint exactly when Black Twitter formed because most likely, it has always been there. It is not organised, it ebbs and flows. It clowns on unseasoned food, ridicules thirst traps people have posted with cluttered backgrounds, it occasionally blesses us with epic Uber sidechick sagas. In fact, BT perfected the art of twitter stories with the legendary 148 tweet long extravaganza of Zola, a stripper who wound up spending the wildest weekend ever in Florida. Don’t let the length of the story faze you, hundreds of celebrities ended up tweeting about it, as well thousands of BT members, with even the likes of Ava DuVernay praising the story development. Plus, the story blessed us with iconic phrases like “lost in the sauce” and it’s in talks for being adapted for the big screen too! The story also perfectly encapsulates many of the elements that make BT so unique, the pastiche of cultural references, the unparalleled humour and the pure savagery counterbalanced by the rather sobering and very real exposition of topical issues. In this case, it was sex trafficking.

You know the black people in the race draft skit from The Chappelle Show? Yeah, Black Twitter is the closest you’ll get to that. It’s a perpetual lituation, a liturgy if you will, to the various aspects of being black. Ok, dodgy puns aside, BT has become the epicentre/birthing-place for memes, movements and conversations. It has become a haven where Black excellence is celebrated and foolishness will not be suffered. The only question is, for how long will it last? I saw an article musing on whether Black Snapchat was replacing Black Twitter but I couldn’t help but think about how they differ. Black Snapchat is definitely smaller in that it mostly consists of some boisterous celebrities whose larger than life characters and little tidbits of everyday life provide much entertainment on the platform. DJ Khaled is one such example who gave us “major keys” to success which included advice on everything from personal hygiene to interpersonal relationships.

 
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Some of the best DJ Khaled memes such as the infamously motivational “they don’t want you to win” originated from his snapchat antics. He may not be black but his significance in the community can’t be ignored. Following the birth of his son Asahd, DJ Khaled’s snapchat has become an ode to their paternal relationship, as well as a great source of envy. I never thought I’d envy the life of an infant but here we are, his life as documented by DJ Khaled is seriously aspirational.

The beauty of Snapchat and Instagram stories is that whilst someone is snapping a major event, you can feel like you’re part of it. It also allows for people to share a slice of their life with others. There is simply a simultaneous exclusivity and inclusivity about Snapchat that makes it appealing. With over 10 billion views a day, it’s safe to say that many of these views are due to people wanting to catch a glimpse of the lives that their favourite celebrities lead. Keke Palmer for example, takes viewers along to her barrage of beauty appointments, studio sessions, rehearsals and functions. Throughout all of this, she drops brutally honest opinions on ex-lovers and ex-friends, often delivering a punchline beginning with #TheGagIs. Anyone that has followed Joanne the Scammer or is aware of lingo within the black gay community will see the influences that she drew upon to create the catchphrase.

Whilst Snapchat and Instagram stories are great, they just don’t quite bring in the variation of voices that Twitter does. One could even argue that things will always come back to Twitter at some point. Simply put, regarding anything taking over from Black Twitter; for the time being:

Issa no.


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Yolanda Sithole