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The Power of Black Twitter

February 15, 2015

I confess. I do not tweet. My social media participation began and ended with the now seemingly archaic Facebook. But for many, the most important and influential conversations are now taking place at lightning-fast speed in 140 characters on twitter.   Within this world of tweets, there is a subgroup that seems to be increasing in power and reach. It’s called “Black Twitter” and constitutes a subculture tweet about everything and anything regarding Black culture. The term “Black Twitter,” according to my research, goes back to 2009, and its ongoing influence on politics and pop culture is undeniable. Stories have been written about “Black Twitter” getting its own wikipedia page, and the Communication Department at USC is conducting an extensive research project on “Black Twitter.”

A Washington Post article notes that “Black Twitter is part cultural force, cudgel, entertainment and refuge. It is its own society within Twitter, replete with inside jokes, slang and rules, centered on the interests of young blacks online.” In some ways, “Black Twitter” has become like the Black Barbershop or Hair Salon where all issues affecting Black America are discussed and at times hotly debated. According to a Pew report, a quarter of African American internet users use twitter, and a Salon.com article reports that “eleven percent of African-American users report using Twitter at least once daily, compared to only three percent of white users.” However, membership in the Black Twitter-sphere does not restrict itself to African Americans.   It is not racial identity per se but the topic of Black culture that unites those in “Black Twitter.”

To date “Black Twitter” has been credited with several high profile “firings” including Paula Deen of the Food network for using the “N” word, and Republican staffer Elizabeth Lauten who criticized President Obama’s daughters. On the social justice front, Black Twitter has been credited with mobilizing and organizing protests during the Zimmerman trial and preventing a juror from the case from writing a book about it. This power reflected in the reaction to the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown killings has proven to be a force in current events. The results of these social justice issues are the numerous phrases made popular by Black Twitter: #BlackLivesMatter, #HandsUpDontShoot, and #ICantBreathe.

Prior to social media, these localized events probably would not have evolved into national news stories. However, the details, images and words of anger over police brutality circulated through the twitter-sphere has proven to be influential and to have forced the rest of the nation to respect its power. This influence is the reason why Blogger Feminsta Jones calls Black Twitter the “underground railroad of activism.”

From a rhetorical perspective, the political and cultural power of Black Twitter can be viewed as a “counter-public”: a place where positions and ideas are circulated that may be counter to those of the mainstream. African Americans who believe their views on matters get overlooked by the general public now have the ability to bring attention to these issues. But it is the constant re-circulation and retweeting of those views that gives Black Twitter its power and influence. Disturbing incidents that occur in Ferguson, Mo. can now reach activists in Brooklyn, NY.  Twitter’s capacity to organize information and to constantly draw the attention of a large group of people to specific issues is extraordinary.

It will be interesting to see what other events will become “high profile” because of “Black Twitter.”   Still, I won’t be joining the Twittersphere anytime soon so I’ll have wait until the next “Black Twitter” driven debate comes to mainstream media.

If you want to know more:

* Here is the Pew Report that provide the demographics of social media,

* Here is the USC study “Black Twitter project” whose research question is “Black Twitter clearly exists. But what is Black Twitter?”

* My comparing Black Twitter to a counterpublic is informed in part by a 1994 article by political scientist Michael C. Dawson of the University of Chicago titled, “A Black Counterpublic?: Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agenda(s), and Black Politics.. Here is his article

* Michael Warner’s book Publics and Counterpublics is another source for public sphere theory.

* From Philly.com  Kimberly C. Ellis. a scholar of American and Africana Studies is working on a book titled The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2015 6:24 am

    #BlackLivesMatter is still so much less important than Feminism! As long as ALL women are oppressed by patriarchy why do we even worry about a very narrow oppression example – just a single race?

  2. Derek G. Handley permalink*
    December 6, 2015 3:09 pm

    LadyBug1995, I encourage you to read Black Lives Matter website. You will see it is very much rooted in feminism, a movement that so many Black women have felt excluded from.

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