The Reason #BlackTwitter Exists (and Is Totally Awesome)


In this episode, we deep dive into how Black Twitter exists on the platform and the unspoken (but somehow still agreed upon) rules of engagement. #SayItLoudPBS

00:00
– [Azie] Thanks to CuriosityStream for supporting
00:02
PBS Digital Studios.
00:04
(sirens wailing)
00:05
– Alright, everybody, we all just heard
00:07
what just happened in the news.
00:09
We have a 60-second window to react
00:11
before another thing happens in the news.
00:13
You, create a hashtag that is scathing,
00:17
culturally relevant, and hilarious all at the same time.
00:20
You, remix the footage so that it becomes a meme
00:23
referenced more than the original source material.
00:26
You, patrol all news outlets
00:29
so that when they speak of this day,
00:30
they call us by name.
00:32
And you,
00:33
(Azie gasps)
00:34
get someone fired!
00:35
– Someone, like, should I get on LinkedIn?
00:38
You know, what, I fire me.
00:41
Look, we’ll give you a quick rundown,
00:44
but we’re not here to convince anyone
00:45
that Black Twitter exists.
00:47
If you know, you know.
00:48
– We want to explore why it exists
00:50
and what happens both online and IRL when
00:53
culture and connectivity collide.
00:56
#StayWoke.
00:57
(energetic music)
01:03
As far as Black Twitter’s origins go,
01:05
here’s what we found.
01:06
In February 2009, about three years
01:09
after the platform’s creation, the term
01:12
first appeared in Google’s search volume index.
01:14
That just means that someone, somewhere
01:17
tried looking it up enough times
01:19
that Google started tracking that particular search.
01:22
– In October 2009, Pew Research Center
01:24
reported that Black Americans used Twitter
01:26
more than the other demographics polled.
01:28
And in November 2009, writer Choire Sicha
01:32
published a short blog post titled
01:34
“What Were Black People Talking About
01:36
” On Twitter Last Night?”
01:37
In it, he revealed his obsession
01:39
with the unique way Black users used hashtags.
01:42
– [Evelyn] The following year, articles from Slate, The Root
01:45
with alternating opinions Gawker, and NPR
01:48
all take notice of this phenomenon.
01:50
– Across the platform, about 500 million tweets
01:53
are fired off per day.
01:54
So how do individual Black people come together
01:57
to form Black Twitter?
01:58
Hashtags!
02:00
– That’s what made Black Twitter
02:01
so innovative and disruptive.
02:03
Its members used hashtags to talk
02:05
about seemingly random, regular, not-time-sensitive stuff
02:10
with such voracity that it would trend.
02:12
Since that original Pew Research Center study
02:14
in 2009, more people have researched
02:17
what makes the internet such an active place
02:20
for Black folks.
02:21
– I often times say that you know,
02:22
in my sort of research and looking at Black Twitter,
02:25
and young peoples use of Twitter,
02:26
that they move from kind of power users to powerful users.
02:31
Power users, rather, are people
02:33
who might use Twitter right, at an exceptional rate
02:36
compared to other populations,
02:37
or segments of the population.
02:38
But powerful is something different right?
02:41
Powerful is sort of using in a way
02:42
to have social impact.
02:44
And so in that sense, I think as people begin
02:45
to understand the potential that social media provides
02:48
in terms of a tool for connecting,
02:50
a tool for building, a tool for communicating,
02:53
a tool for organizing, that their beginning
02:56
to understand like, how to be powerful,
02:58
and not just power in terms
02:59
of how they’re using the technology.
03:01
– Trending topics were usually about current events.
03:03
But #YouKnowYoureBlackIf, #BlackMomsBeLike,
03:07
and the late-night #uainthittinitright
03:09
that Choire referenced in his piece
03:11
were all forms of storytelling, as opposed to updates.
03:14
– We wanted to know exactly how one becomes a member
03:17
of Black Twitter.
03:18
Are there rules, or at least, consistent practices?
03:22
So I reached out to my friend Kiana Tipton for help.
03:25
She has a masters degree in Twitter!
03:27
– Well actually my alma mater didn’t quite offer
03:30
a masters in Black Twitter.
03:32
Although, sometime I tell people (laughs)
03:35
I have a masters in Black Twitter.
03:37
And nobodies checked me on it, so.
03:39
Black Twitter is not an actual space
03:42
and it’s also not a homogeneous group
03:45
where everyone looks the same,
03:47
everyone talks about the same things,
03:49
and everyone cares about the same things.
03:50
I think in order to participate in Black Twitter
03:53
and to be a part of it you have to have
03:55
that cultural competency.
03:58
Essentially it mirrors in real life
04:00
conversations that Black people are having.
04:02
So, some of those things are community,
04:05
call and response, that is really common in Black language.
04:08
And of course, there’s humor.
04:10
And I think both community and call and response
04:13
lend itself to that humorous aspect.
04:15
– It’s not all fun and games on Twitter.
04:17
– Black Twitter consistently uses hashtag campaigns
04:20
to organize around a social or political cause.
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#SayHerName, created in Sandra Bland’s honor,
04:25
highlights the often hidden plight
04:27
of Black women affected by political injustice
04:29
or police brutality.
04:30
Mainstream media’s tendency to publicize
04:33
a victim’s most stereotypical photos
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after an unarmed Black person is killed,
04:37
sparked #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.
04:39
And of course #BlackLivesMatter,
04:41
which is now an international activist organization.
04:44
– #Whatadoctorlookslike empowered Black female doctors
04:47
and med students to take pride in their profession.
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Black Twitter’s hashtag campaigns
04:51
can also be pointed at a specific person.
04:54
#MuteRKelly aims to keep an accused sexual predator
04:58
from working in show business.
04:59
#MeToo aims to highlight the frequency
05:02
of sexual violence and harassment,
05:04
and is an example of a Black activist’s initiative
05:07
becoming widely used throughout the Twitterverse
05:09
and larger culture.
05:11
– Take a look through #BlackBoyJoy,
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and you’ll find men and boys celebrating themselves
05:15
and their right to be viewed as happy
05:16
and carefree in a society that often pegs them as a threat.
05:20
Search #BlackGirlMagic and you’ll see women and girls
05:22
celebrating the things that make them special and beautiful.
05:25
– #GirlsLikeUs and #TransIsBeautiful,
05:28
both started by Black women,
05:29
made space for the diverse experiences
05:32
and expressions of trans people.
05:34
– See, we can be serious.
05:37
– These hashtags can connect us in our loneliest times.
05:40
But academics have described what it is we’re doing
05:43
when we chime in on #BlackMomsBeLike,
05:45
we’re performing our racial or ethnic identities.
05:48
– Our fairy godfather Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
05:52
academically coined the term Signifyin’.
05:54
– It’s an act that usually takes place in person,
05:57
but Dr. Sarah Florini argues that online,
06:00
in the absence of a physical body,
06:02
Black Twitter users perform their racial identity
06:05
by using wordplay or references
06:07
that only those with deep experience-based knowledge
06:10
of Black U.S. culture can recognize.
06:12
– A good example of this is #AskRachel,
06:14
where people posed a series
06:16
of multiple choice questions to stump Rachel Dolezal,
06:18
as if to say “If you were really Black, you’d know this.”
06:21
– Signifyin’ is so second nature
06:23
that it’s hard to fake the funk.
06:26
That’s why we can spot a perpetrator.
06:28
You know those fake accounts.
06:30
You know the ones.
06:31
They got like 5 tweets from ten minutes ago
06:34
and the slang they use is just off.
06:37
Like Kendrick said, “You sound like the feds, homie.”
06:40
– We also participate in Black Twitter
06:42
to create cultural capital.
06:44
There’s a sense of pride and elevated status associated
06:47
with the ability to effectively execute
06:49
a culturally significant piece of content.
06:52
AKA keep the retweets coming!
06:54
– I mean that’s why we get so hype
06:57
to add our two cents on a popular Black Twitter hashtag.
07:00
We want to be part of a larger group, gain acceptance
07:03
and have our experiences affirmed by peers.
07:06
And we do this in layers!
07:08
Adding visuals like gifs, memes,
07:10
video clips to create one big cultural inside joke.
07:16
– Your cultural capital can reach such viral heights
07:19
that it should make some financial capital.
07:22
Like these guys.
07:23
You can giggle at comedian Jaboukie Young-White’s jokes
07:25
on Twitter and on the TV shows
07:28
he now writes for and stars in.
07:30
– Author Luvvie Ajayi’s live tweets during Scandal
07:32
were legendary. – Yes!
07:34
– And the pop culture commentator’s first book
07:36
has been optioned by Shonda Rhimes herself
07:39
for development into a comedy series.
07:41
– Jay Versace brings joy to millions for free
07:44
with his videos and we want his creative genius
07:46
in more commercial work.
07:49
– We fresh outta Sprite!
07:51
– We’ll link to some resources that tackle how
07:52
Black youth culture online is often exploited.
07:55
– I hope to never see a fast food chain tweet
07:58
“on fleek” ever again.
08:00
So, We’ve invited Kiana here to help us
08:03
analyze our tweets, professionally. (laughs)
08:07
– Okay.
08:07
Because we need to know if we Black Twittering correctly?
08:10
And that is your expertise, right?
08:12
– Yes, this is my dream day.
08:14
(all laughing)
08:16
– So let’s start with Azie, when did you get on Twitter?
08:19
– I think I got on Twitter in 2009.
08:22
– Uh-huh?
08:23
– But I just remember that I was just an egg.
08:26
– Oh yeah, you didn’t have a photo! (laughing)
08:28
– Yeah, I didn’t have a photo, I didn’t know,
08:30
and I wrote, “Is this thing on?”
08:32
– I think I started mine in 2007,
08:34
yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing, either.
08:37
– I think you have to have,
08:39
you have to cultivate that community
08:40
and friend group, so it’s kind of like a group chat.
08:43
Because until you have that it’s like,
08:45
I’m talking to myself! – Yeah I didn’t get the point.
08:47
– So I was really mad about this college acceptance scandal.
08:51
So I started talking about how I got into college,
08:55
how it was really hard.
08:56
“Lemme tell you something, almost any person of color
08:58
” who is in college or university beat generational
09:00
” layers of instability and poverty to get there.
09:03
” Even if they were middle class they were,
09:05
” statistically speaking, one mistake away
09:07
” from losing everything.”
09:08
Guys, I was having a moment.
09:10
(all laughing)
09:12
– This is intense.
09:14
– And 50 retweets, that’s popular.
09:16
– How many? – 50.
09:17
– Oh, that’s popular, okay. (all laughing)
09:20
– There’s a call and response element to it.
09:22
So, there’s something going on I the news
09:25
and you are talking about that in a way
09:28
that a lot of other Black people will relate to
09:30
and you can see that through how many retweets you got.
09:33
And also, in this kind of shared experience
09:36
that other Black college students,
09:39
or Black people that have gone to college have experienced.
09:42
Also, the thread element which I find really interesting,
09:44
is something that Twitter added several years
09:48
after creating the platform kind of to
09:51
to be able to facilitate conversations
09:53
in a way that mirrors offline conversation.
09:56
– Okay, let’s see what my most retweeted tweet is.
09:58
(all giggling)
10:00
So, (laughs) it’s actually a retweet.
10:04
So my most retweeted, tweet is me retweeting something.
10:08
– Oh my gosh! – And it’s that Tyra Banks
10:11
like meme, so the persons original tweet was,
10:15
“We want your culture but you evicted.”
10:17
And so I retweeted it and I was like,
10:20
“Wow, a poem by Austin, Texas.”
10:22
and so, people really liked that.
10:24
– So people, and then the first person who wrote back said,
10:28
“And Atlanta, And Brooklyn, and Seattle.”
10:30
– So, this is a quote tweet.
10:32
This is what we in the academic Twitter world
10:34
like to call a quote tweet.
10:35
This is also a newer addition from Twitter
10:39
originally they didn’t allow you to do this.
10:41
You could retweet what someone else said
10:43
or you could add to it,
10:43
but you couldn’t add on, on top of that tweet.
10:46
– Uh-huh. – Oh, right!
10:47
– So, this is something that’s probably within
10:49
the last fix or six years.
10:52
But it’s another way that have changed
10:55
the actual interface and algorithm of the platform
10:57
to facilitate conversations in meaningful ways.
11:01
But what is funny about this and also
11:04
kind of like mimics the way that Black people
11:06
have conversations is that you have this tweet that’s funny
11:10
and then it’s like, you’re kind of adding on to it.
11:12
– Yeah, yeah.
11:12
– Like, let me make this funnier.
11:14
– So, thanks Kiana, for going down memory lane with us,
11:18
and exploring our tweets. – Of course.
11:20
– We will continue to Black Twitter
11:22
to the best of our abilities
11:23
and not get dragged hopefully in the future
11:26
for saying dumb stuff.
11:28
– Who would have known that a social media platform
11:31
that restricted you to 140 characters would become a vibrant
11:34
community for so many people?
11:36
– We could be arguing over sugar grits vs the correct ones,
11:39
or more serious conversations
11:41
around codeswitching and workplace etiquette.
11:43
And when they upgraded to 280 characters?
11:47
More space for more shenanigans
11:50
without having to shorten your, to U R,
11:52
like it’s an AOL chat room.
11:54
– #TBT, y’all.
11:56
Whether it’s used to demand political change,
11:58
help people find community,
12:00
or just make us cackle uncontrollably,
12:02
Black Twitter has value.
12:04
– And of course, we’re scared
12:06
of getting dragged by Black Twitter
12:08
– Ah, did I just delete my tweets from 2010?
12:10
Possibly.
12:11
– In that way, Black Twitter keeps us responsible,
12:14
always thinking about the implications of what we say.
12:17
And if we ever need anything from a laugh
12:20
to a full-on take-down?
12:21
We know who to call.
12:23
(sirens wailing) (Evelyn cackles)
12:27
– Let us know if you’re part of Black Twitter and why.
12:30
Share this video on your twitter and @ us!
12:32
– We’ll see you next time.
12:34
– Bye! – Bye!
12:35
Thank you to CuriosityStream
12:36
for supporting PBS Digital Studios.
12:38
CuriosityStream is a subscription streaming service
12:42
that offers documentaries and non-fiction titles
12:44
from a variety of filmmakers,
12:46
including CuriosityStream originals.
12:48
For example, they have,
12:49
“King: A Filmed Record Montgomery To Memphis.”
12:52
The doc uses archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr.,
12:56
but what if we also had his tweets?
12:58
You can learn more at curiositystream.com/sayitloud.
13:02
Click here to watch previous episodes of “Say It Loud.”
13:06
Click here to watch
13:07
“Roy Wood Jr. deep dive into Black Twitter”
13:09
for the “Daily Show”
13:10
and click here to watch Blavity’s hilarious sketch
13:13
“If Black Twitter Went On A Date With You”.
13:16
(bright tinkling chimes)
13:20
(electronic music)

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