If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and No One Hears it, Does it Throw Shade?

Chances are by now you’ve heard of Black Twitter. Maybe you’ve seen Issa Rae’s “Black Twitter Party” Video. Not sure? Take Complex Magazine’s Black Twitter Quiz. However, note, according to the website if you need to reference Urban Dictionary at any point during the quiz you’ll be disqualified. In other words, you’ll need to possess a very specific set of cultural knowledge to understand many of the jokes this quiz refers to, and most importantly to under the satire it is employing to make fun of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Media Studies, which recently released a proposal to do an actual study on Black Twitter, labeled DSAIL Black Twitter Project. As you may be able to guess by the satire in the Complex article, the study was met with discontent by Black Twitter, expressed in it’s most popular form of venting, the satirical #hashtag based on black cultural black twitter references.

-Complex Magazine

-Complex Magazine

Of course, as always there was also more serious commentary on the subject, with some participants in Black Twitter feeling as though this study came at the end of a long line of the historical spectacularization of blackness under the white gaze.

-Complex Magazine

In his article for NPR, “How Black People May or May Not Use Twitter,” Sam Sanders highlights many very similar reactions to Slate Magazine’s article “How Black People Use Twitter.” Danielle Benton and Baratunde Thurston both argued that the things black people do or talk about on twitter are no different than those of any other demographic, but, according to Thurston, they stand out simply because they are not “mainstream,” or in other words, 40-year old white male technologists. This argument is interesting given that he was quoted in the original Slate magazine discussing “blacktags” (black hashtags) as a new form of the Dozens, a black cultural oral tradition of one-upping insults on one another, usually in front of an audience.

There are many similar arguments about the contextualization of Black Twitter discourse in the history of African American language practices. In his chapter “Taking Black Technology Use Seriously: African American Discursive Traditions in the Digital Underground,” in Race, Rhetoric and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground, Adam Banks argues that African American language and discourse thrives in online spaces, as he found on the site Black Planet. Part of his argument is that black online discourse is rooted in oral traditions in African American language such as call and response, signifyin’, exaggerated language, punning, and more. André Brock expounds specifically on the practice of signifyin’, arguing that this twitter practice can be seen understood as a discursive, public performance of black identity (Brock, 537). Brock believes that twitter’s design and character limit actually encourage the performance of blackness and the use of African American styles of language, creating a unique space for black identity. In this way, we may be able to say that Black Twitter has achieved what Ernesto Priego describes as self-determination, or “the freedom of misrepresented individuals and communities to determine their own online content” (Priego: 2011). Banks situates black online discourse in the concept of the “underground” which, like the underground railroad, describes places and practices that go unnoticed, even though they may be occurring in plain view. This has most often been highlighted in the black discursive spaces created by the barbershop, beauty salon, and the black church. However, Banks argues that these underground cultural practices are not limited only to physical space, but can also be found in technologies and networks.

In her article for the Washington Post, Soraya McDonald describes Black Twitter in a very similar way, noting that the large number of black twitter users means that “a community has evolved online to reflect one that has long existed offline. The difference is now it’s out in the open for anyone to observe” (McDonald: 2014). This visibility, though perhaps annoying for some users when white media attempts to study or create a spectacle out of it, is also what gives Black Twitter tangible, social activist power. McDonald cites many instances, such as the canceling of the book deal of Juror B37 in the George Zimmerman trial, in which Black Twitter was instrumental in real life issues. Black Twitter also has a demonstrated potential to organize users around important social justice causes using hashtags such as #solidarityisforwhitewomen, #justicefortrayvon, and more recently, #iftheygunnedmedown and #Ferguson. Still, Black Twitter’s  hashtags are often highlighted for their witty humor and unforgiving reads of celebrities and mainstream media, some of the most memorable being #PaulasBestDishes, #abcreports, and #TimeTitles. Although these hashtags are humorous, they are usually sparked by a genuinely offensive, or even racist, incident, and can be seen as social commentary about larger issues surrounding race, stereotyping, and microagressions. In his book How to Be Black, Bratunde Thurston quotes Christian Lander, creator of Stuff White People Like who argues that satire is essential to talking about race because it creates a comfort that opens up dialogue (Thurston, 229). McDonald agrees, noting that “unvarnished anger isn’t very effective; it’s too easy to dismiss as an emotional and irrational response, and it’s exhausting. But when humor accompanies it, the whole message seems to stick” (McDonald, 2014). This unique creative wit blurs the lines between comedic relief and social commentary on Black Twitter, and its visibility and seemingly exponentially increasing cultural influence will continue to make it one of the hot topics when discussing the intersections of race and technology.

Discussion Questions 

  1. Is satire conducive to serious conversations about race? Does it trivialize the subject, or make non-people of color feel justified in racial jokes?
  2. Who are the jokes/social commentary directed to? If only people who have spent significant amounts of time socializing with black people will have the cultural knowledge to understand the references in these hashtags, how can others learn from it?
  3. Seeing as Black Twitter is not an exclusive space (it requires no password or personal connection) what does it mean when others participate in it? Moreover, how does one differentiate between who is a part of black twitter and who isn’t? What does it mean to “participate?”

Works Cited 

  1. http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2014/09/black-twitter-study/define-black-twitter-discourse
  2. http://www.annenberglab.com/projects/dsail-black-twitter-project#.VAYYLBYjHLg.twitter
  3. http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2010/08/16/129235517/how-black-people-may-or-may-not-use-twitter
  4. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2010/08/how_black_people_use_twitter.html
  5. Banks, Adam. 2006. “Taking Black Technology Use Seriously: African American Discursive Traditions in the Digital Underground.” Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 68-85.

  6. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/black-twitter-a-virtual-community-ready-to-hashtag-out-a-response-to-cultural-issues/2014/01/20/41ddacf6-7ec5-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html

  7. Thurston, Baratunde. 2012. How to Be Black. New York, NY: Harper

  8. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university_of_venus/can_the_subaltern_tweet
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