In the last few years, Black people have effectively carved out a thriving social enclave for themselves, where humor, social issues and cultural discussions reign supreme. This community, constantly growing in its power and influence, is known as Black Twitter.
If you’re not familiar with “Black Twitter,” it’s the collective of Black users of the social network, who are quick with their responses to trending topics, shade-throws and new age resistance. It’s a powerful community that’s been able to shift perspectives and bring light to cultural issues, all while making us laugh hysterically. The wonderful thing about it is that anyone from Black celebrities to writers to everyday people can make an impact in the space.
But what began as a fun way to express ourselves has become a major power player in the digital landscape. Earlier this month, the L.A. Times announced the hire of Dexter Thomas as its resident #BlackTwitter reporter and now, popular digital media outlets like BuzzFeed have staff who are always ready to share the latest from the online community.
“I was skeptical about it because I don’t think that Black Twitter exists as a monolithic entity that everyone treats it as,” Thomas said of his new gig.
His first piece, entitled When Black Twitter Sounds Like White Twitter, ran Wednesday, much to the ire of many Black Twitter users.
“Black Twitter, like every other online community, is a diverse and tangled mess of opinions,” he wrote. “We would be doing the community an injustice if we pretended otherwise. In other words, Black Twitter looks an awful lot like White Twitter.”
Black Twitter, of course, jumped on his piece. Most users found themselves asking the question, if this is his first piece and he’s essentially saying that it has no defining characteristics , then what the hell is the point?
But despite Thomas’ problematic observations, Black Twitter DOES make a number of important, nuanced observations about culture. Much of the appeal, as Thomas himself learned, is the capacity to fire back at any person – celebrity or otherwise – that has crossed the line, especially when it comes to race issues. Users are quick to get topics trending in a matter of mere minutes. A perfect example of this was this week’s clear direction change of the hashtag #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter. Black Twitter users took it and made it their own. That itself is something we aren’t seeing outside of the digital community.
It’s obvious that Black Twitter has something special and people are noticing.
And, like so many communities, there are also clearly defined outsiders. Celebrities like Don Lemon, Raven-Symoné and Stacy Dash have been dragged for their problematic responses to Black issues and what some have called flat-out “coonery.” And then there are people like Iggy Azalea and Rachel Dolezal, who permanently live on the shadesiest side of Black Twitter’s spectrum of disdain.
But make no mistake, the Tweets are not only about serving witty side-eyes and memes that dreams are made of, they also are “here for” a select few and are quick to celebrate them. Black Twitter has uplifted celebrities like Misty Copeland, Serena Williams, Ava DuVernay and Amandla Stenberg, in addition to “Internet celebrities” like Bree Newsome, who took down the Confederate flag.
Perhaps most important, however, is the subject of advocacy. If you think of how popular the #BlackLivesMatter movement, born out of a hashtag that went viral on Black Twitter, has now become, it shows the importance of social media in drawing attention to systems of racism. It’s also a space where the untold stories of police brutality and Black victims often find a voice. How much would we really know about the death of Mike Brown, for example, without #JusticeforMikeBrown?
Through a combination of humor, righteous anger and information dissemination, Black Twitter is an online community that births meaningful cultural and communication exchanges for the issues that affect Black people at local, national and sometimes even global levels.
At its simplest (yet most profound) form, it has given Black people, who are at the forefront of cultural nuance, some real tangible representation. It is a way that thousands of Black opinions — on communication, identity and community expression — are being heard. And as it grows and transforms, like all things, it will need to figure out just how to harness that power, as well as create opportunities for monetary benefits for its participants.
Furthermore, the question remains whether stories covering Black Twitter will actually be a space for thoughtful analysis and reporting, or will it be a source of exploitation and misrepresentation.
“Is this going to be an area of consistent, dynamic change? Or is this going to be another sense of ‘we’re going to have an ethnography where we look at all the Negroes?’” cultural commentator and (Black Twitter power-player) Sydette Harry (@BlackAmazon) wrote.
And while the media and other industries are already figuring out how to make money off of it, some experts are concerned with the ongoing lack of diversity in those newsrooms. As Dr. Meredith Clark of the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University Of North Texas wrote, most newsrooms are “woefully deficient of people of color, particularly Black and Hispanic journalists, working in [their newsrooms].”
Let’s hope that the power of Black Twitter will change that.
Writer Kovie Biakolo contributed to this report. Follow her at @koviebiakolo