Exploring both the lighthearted and sobering issues of Black community
Remember #SayHerName? That hashtag, along with so many more, upended the social media world in 2015 in the wake of 28-year-old Sanda Bland’s death while in police custody in Texas. Then there’s #ICantBreathe which trended for months in 2014 after an NYPD officer placed a banned chokehold on Eric Garner ultimately leading to the man’s death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.
Following the 2013 George Zimmerman trial (acquitted of second-degree murder charges for the death of Trayvon Martin), more people began using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and while it began initially on Facebook, African-American took to Twitter (now X) to voice theory support for the movement. This hashtag was groundbreaking in that it evolved into a full-blown political movement in the ensuing years. Another hashtag, #HandsUpDontShoot, quickly spread nationwide following the 2014 officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
A voice for Blacks around the world
Black Twitter is not a specific hashtag or subgroup of Twitter. It’s not a separate platform. Rather, Black Twitter is a social movement that explores both the lighthearted and grim aspects of the African-American community at large. Simply, Black Twitter serves as a voice for African-Americans to speak freely against injustice, as well as issues involving their respective communities not only nationwide, but around the world.
Black Twitter can be difficult to define. The meaning is somewhat amorphous, but it refers to a particular collective of block identities and voices taking part in culturally specific topics be it politics, entertainment, history, current events or even humor. Everything from “colorism” to cultural approbation (e.g. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Kendall Jenner and Miley Cyrus) are common discussion points. In effect, Black Twitter has allowed mainstream White culture a rare glimpse at how Black people talk and joke among one another…and how Black people have augmented a technology that didn’t originally have them in mind.
“Black Twitter is a loose network of Twitter users who talk about African-American-related issues,” said Mark Luckie, Twitter’s former manager of journalism and news. He has since left the social network to become head of journalism and media at Reddit. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be made up of Black people, but it centers around the content [Black people] talk about in real life.”
influence pop culture
Mainstream media doesn’t always cover these Black subjects. In 2014, a Pew Research Center survey showed that 27 percent of African-Americans online were using Twitter. This compared with 21 percent of Whites, 25 percent of Latinos and roughly 20 percent of Asians. Among Twitter users, Black people comprise the highest percentage among any other ethnic group in the Pew survey. The survey found that Black Twitter users gather to discuss news facing their community to such an extent that it has become a primary source of news. African-Americans were more likely than any other ethnic group to get news from social media–or news that is of particular interest to the Black community.
Black Twitter’s lexicon has provided new terms for popular culture such as “thot,” “bae,” “cuffing season,” “throwing shade,” “lit” and “turnt up.” In time, companies began using the slang in advertising, marketing platforms and, especially, to sell items like T-shirts and other miscellaneous products online.
Black Twitter’s activism extended to other areas besides police brutality and violence. A good example was the 2015 hashtag #OscarsSoWhite when viewers tuned to find hardly any Black Academy Award nominees. In turn, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to change its rules regarding who could be an Academy member and even added extra seats to the governor’s board to increase diversity.
The seeds of ‘cancel culture’
Ten years ago, Black Twitter’s outrage was largely responsible for corporations ending their affiliations with chef Paula Deen after she used the N-word. Later, a juror from the George Zimmerman trial lost out on a major book deal when Black Twitter voiced disapproval. Celebrities have faced the wrath of Black Twitter via so-called “cancellations” that were not necessarily rooted in anger and outrage but, rather, were moments of catharsis where people who have been socially wounded or insulted for generations finally had a voice to put the “gatekeepers” on notice.
In 2018, Black Twitter fomented significant anger on social media regarding comedian Kevin Hart’s homophobic tweets that eventually pressured him to bow out as host of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. A year earlier, Black Twitter pressured Pepsi to retract and apologize for a Kendall Jenner commercial accused of co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Black Twitter is an outlet for the Black voice,” said Olivia Steen, a multimedia journalist. “When it comes to social issues, people are able to bring about the change that they want to see by simply making the public aware of it on Twitter.”
Steen said she sifts through Black Twitter daily to see which topics are being discussed in an effort to localize stories to her coverage area (Tampa, Fla.). “Mainstream media is supposed to amplify a voice for all people, not just one group. It would be wonderful if more journalists would use Black Twitter to learn more about what is going on in the community. Unfortunately, it’s primarily Black journalists who tend to utilize the service,” she noted. Black Twitter is also unique in that the ordinary person can monitor the site and follow individuals (e.g. celebrities, politicians) who are known for sharing content about the Black experience.
‘Blackness’ at center of social discourse
Black Twitter is not exclusive to Black folks. According to Meredith Clark, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, a good portion of White Americans follow the discussions on a daily basis. They want to know more about the community conversations (and knowing how to better position themselves within those conversations).
“The very name ‘Black Twitter’ can pose some tricky elements for the larger community,” Clark explained. “How do you determine who belongs to an online community that is bounded by race and cultural experience? It’s just realizing that Blackness is at the center of what’s happening with these interactions…and being okay with that. It can be beneficial to be more of an ‘observer’ at times, rather than someone who’s trying to control the narrative if you’re not Black.”
The “narrative” Clark spoke of is more of a source of a digital “counter chronicle” for the way Black life in the United States is depicted in mainstream media. Prior to Black Twitter, community news was primarily available through various print outlets such as Ebony, Essence or Black Enterprise magazines. Now, so many Black communicators are able to convey their stories and opinions without the need for White “approval” and/or “validation.”
Through the process of “retweeting,” the multi-purpose countenance of Black Twitter allows its followers into a supportive culture where members can discuss topics as varied as institutionalized racism, problematic people, racist messaging, as well as lighter topics like pop culture, movies and memes. Most importantly, Black Twitter offers immersion in a Black community where one’s concerns or perspectives are verified.
Michelle Obama and #BlackGirlMagic
Further examples of the power of Black Twitter can be found in the now-famous hashtags #BringBackOurGirls (in pressuring the Nigerian government to secure the release of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014), and #BlackGirlMagic in celebrating the educational and professional accomplishments of Black women. Even then-First Lady Michelle Obama took to Twitter to demand the return of the Nigerian girls.
Much of the content on Black Twitter surfaces during a crisis that impacts Black people such as race-related incidents that had less than favorable outcomes for the Black community. By sheer determination, Black people in the developed countries worldwide have used the platform to share narratives on issues of interest that, ordinarily, wouldn’t garner as much discussion within the wider social media community.
No one fully knows what the future of Black Twitter may hold now that billionaire Elon Musk has purchased the platform. Musk said his $44 billion outlay last year is solely in “pursuit of free speech” in a pitch to allow controversial topics to remain on Twitter. Probably the biggest news is that he has allowed former President Donald Trump to once again participate on the site (despite Trump’s new Truth Social platform specifically aimed at the MAGA audience). There have been rumblings that Musk may begin to charge users visiting “X.” Another fear is that hate speech and harassment could proliferate unabated. Clark doesn’t foresee a mass exodus but does suspect that if the site is “replatformed,” some people may go elsewhere to express their random thoughts on the passing scene. Perhaps the best part of Black Twitter is that it is a never-ending well of creativity that highlights the best of Black excellency and the beauty of Black minds.
“We’ll have to wait and see how the platform changes,” Clark said. “When the news broke that Musk had bought Twitter, the instant knee jerk reaction was ‘That’s it. I’m leaving.’ But within a day or two people were saying ‘No, we’re not leaving. We’re going to be here raising hell and being ourselves [because] that’s what we’ve been doing all this time. Why should we stop now?’”