Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why "They" Don't Understand What Black People Do on Twitter

President Barack Obama Signs BrownTwitterBirds into Law
Original Graphic by
Yesterday, Twitter was all a-flutter for yet another ignorant article trying to tell readers about Black people. For me, the best response to the Slate article on "How Black People Use Twitter" was not the poor manner in which the article did NOT explain how Black people use Twitter. Rather, it was the immediate response of one Tweeter named @InnyVinny who, in her frustration, wrote on her blogsite in all caps, "BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT A MONOLITH" and then went on to, literally, remix the basic brown twitter bird with the diverse array of Black people---on Twitter. Hers was a visual art protest that parallels, if not supercedes the artist who created the Fail Whale and other popular images on Twitter. In one fell swoop, (now a hashtag: #browntwitterbird), @InnyVinny put on display what is so painstakingly obvious for most of us --- "you don't know me! You don't know my LIFE!"

You see, in this list are the loc-wearers, the wig doners, the sports enthusiasts, the hometown reppers, the Afrocentrists, the ghetto fabulous, the afro'ed up, the regal ones and the graduates, the lovers of Prince, Michael, Rick James or even Grace Jones...and the hi top fade. Other than the celebrities, it's clear that not only Slate but the rest of mainstream America has no real idea who Black people are, no real clue about our humanity, in general, so of course they would have no real idea what we're doing on Twitter and how we express our culture. For us, Twitter is an electronic medium that allows enough flexibility for uninhibited and unfabricated creativity while exhibiting more of the strengths of social media that allow us to build community.

Sadly, when the mainstream attempts to describe or otherwise represent us and our lives, they choose the #browntwitterbird with the boombox, watermelon (and no Blackberry) in hand, standing next to the bucket of chicken. Yes, mainstream America, that is how you see us and, truthfully, that's a slice of how some of us are (at times). You, however, think it's us in totality, so we laugh at your lack of intelligence and observation skills and continue to 'Make Me a World'. This is why @InnyVinny's Brown Twitter Birds were adopted, in less than 12 hours, as a revolution on Twitter, by throngs of users expressing, adopting and requesting customized birds that reflect our beautiful, Black and multifaceted selves.

Indeed, the best part of the Slate article (outside of the wisdom of quoting @Baratunde Thurston and @ElonJames White) were the revelations that more Black Twitter users than not create a far more balanced, reciprocal relationship to one another, as opposed to the silly, somewhat mindless, stalking behavior of "following" a celebrity and never receiving a response:
Nevertheless, Brendan Meeder thinks he's got a good hypothesis about what's going on. Meeder, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University, has downloaded the tweets of more than 100 million users. (Twitter gave him special permission to do so for research purposes.) He's been probing this collection to see how Twitter users interact with one another; he's particularly interested in how trends begin and spread through a social network. While analyzing his database a few months ago, Meeder noticed something strange—he found a cluster of hundreds of users whose profiles were connected to one another. When he looked up the users, he noticed that a lot of them were black. It's in exactly these kinds of tight-knit groups that Twitter memes flourish, Meeder says.
Understandable, right? But it gets better!
Not only are the people who start these trends more tightly clustered on the network, they're also using the network differently. Most people on Twitter have fewer followers than the number of people they're following—that is, they're following celebrities, journalists, news organizations, and other big institutions that aren't following them back. But according to Meeder, the users who initiate blacktags seem to have more reciprocal relationships—they're following everyone who follows them.
For the record, Black people use Twitter hashtags, thanks! But one final piece of wisdom from the only person to do any actual research here (Brendan Meeder):
These patterns suggest that the black people who start these tags "are using Twitter as a social tool," Meeder says. "They're using Twitter like a public instant messenger"—using the service to talk to one another rather than broadcast a message to the world.
Actually, we talk to each other AND we broadcast a message to the world, hence the popularity of the Trending Topics and Twitter usage, yes? Now, if only we were left alone in the real world the way we are on Twitter, perhaps we could effect more change.

It's not until the third to the last paragraph that, authour, Farhad chooses to explain, in any intelligent manner the obvious flaw of the entire article:
There is an obvious problem with talking about how black people use Twitter, as many of the black Twitter users I spoke to took pains to point out: Not all black people on the service are participating in these hashtags, and there are probably a great many who are indifferent to or actively dislike the tags.
Okay, so "many of the [B]lack Twitter users" Manjoo spoke to "took pains to point out" how we are not a monolith and, yet, you all over there at Slate (editors and all) still decided to run with the title, "How Black People Use Twitter", eh? Brilliant.

wonders (aloud) how and why the trending topics begun by Black people on Twitter are so "successful" without bothering to consider the numbers game. How do I explain that comedian, MarlonWayans, who, with his brothers, captured the attention of the next generation with hilarious films such as "White Chicks" and "Scary Movie", has been a source of some of the sillier hashtags ever since he arrived on Twitter? At present, he has 310,00 followers, quite enough to produce a Trending Topic all by his lonesome, yes? And with masses of Black teenagers following him, it just makes sense, right? I suppose this was too logical an answer...

Thus, if they can't understand something so simple, then they wouldn't understand why, even though we are really (really!!!) appalled by both home invasion and rape, we love the Antoine Dodson story and find he, his sister, Kelli, (and his other family members) so funny.

And if that's the case, they REALLY wouldn't understand why a remix (auto-tune) song was made of his rant, why Antoine has 13 Twitter accounts, a website, is selling T-shirts and has a hotline---all this from the attempted rape of his sister by a roving rapist in their Huntsville, Alabama, Lincoln Park neighborhood. America, gotta love it.

As for what trends, I wonder if we should bother sharing that in addition to the more fun, unpredictable, silly or outrageous Trending Topics, we can also (proudly, thankfully) add the hashtags of #OscarGrant and #AiyanaJones to the list. And would Slate's audience even know who these people are? Probably not, which further exemplifies the segregation of our communities as well as the problem of race in the 21st Century.

Dare I even mention the Black Weblog Awards or would that be going too far and doing too much? Would we overwhelm the populace?

Over this last year, I observed the fascinating manner in which Black people were expressing their culture and building community on Twitter, particularly those of us in the "Hip Hop Generation", which is why I decided to focus upon how we were using the medium to effect change. Thus, I put a panel together for Netroots Nation 2010. As it turns out, not all of my panelists could attend but "Tweeting the Revolution: How Hip Hop Transformed 140 into 360" was, nonetheless, an excellent panel---and videotaped and live streamed just for you!

I felt the need to frame our conversation (because unlike Slate, I KNOW Black people are not a monolith), so I wrote up an introduction (which was a gamble), that proved to be quite fruitful and elicited major response from attendees. And it's funny because I was in my room typing up the last edits and trying to add some of my favorite Tweeters' names and folks who had answered my questions prior to the panel, so I am glad I did the intro. During the run down, comedian and co-panelist, @ElonJames White (This Week in Blackness) tweeted "@drgoddess is giving a State of the Black Twitterverse speech". Hilarity.

I promised to provide it for you in written form---and I shall. Oh yes. I shall. <-----[Melodramatic repetition included for ultimate effect and to inspire shivering due to fright and/or impending doom}

In the meantime, for the mainstream and those trying to figure out Black people on Twitter...

Jesus Be a Brain and a Human Heart.

(Special Thanks to @Punch_VJ @EbonyStarr55 and @Vizionheiry for the links!)


Dr. Dia said...

Very thoughtful post Sis! I agree that some interesting revelations were made in the Slate article regarding how we follow each other...but hightlighting the ways in which the generalizations are more of the same was on point! We've never been understood by "them" and in many cases by ourselves, which should be expected when you consider our history and the oppression still impacting us.

InnyVinny said...

This is an excellent response, sis. Really and truly.

I really don't think there is anything to "get" and, despite the authors sincere expressions of curiosity, I refuse to believe that people networking socially on a social networking site is cause for research. I really don't.

Numbers weren't factored, most of those TTs flourish at night...when teens with smartphones are awake with nothing to do...and there are fewer people online so the topics get popular more quickly.


I really think Slate wanted to stir up mess. I'm glad I stayed out of the comment section, because I couldn't help but laugh at it.

Anonymous said...


I love you for this.

Lidia-Anain said...

Dr. Goddess, I loved your post. I think that what the Slate article should do is motivate our community to work together to show that we are a force both online and offline. When this all broke on twitter I instantly thought about how little attention/credit we get as bloggers, new media experts and how we need to focus on working together to show "them" our stories.

The #browntwitterbird movement highlighted how right now IS the time for change. Clutch Magazine's creator Deanna Sutton has put together a panel suggestion for SXSW that we need more attention on. The panel focuses on how "they" see us and how we can move beyond that as a community.

Please, take the time to read her proposal. You'll see that it also touches some of the points you've made in this post. If you could register and vote for her panel and encourage your readers to do the same then that panel will happen at SWSX. Voting started yesterday and runs through August 27th. Here is the link:

I loved the caption you put with the graphic I created of the brown twitter birds and President Obama. =)

Dr. Goddess said...

Thank you Dr. Dia and, of course, I agree. You make an excellent point of how we need to further understand ourselves as well. Mmph!

InnyVinny, you KNOW I appreciate your post and for putting to paint what so many of us felt in our hearts! I do think there is a need to study social networking but it must be done well. Sadly, the commentary about the real research was not.

WiseMath, I love you right back for reading and appreciating this post! and in general! ;-)

Dr. Goddess said...

Lidia! Wow, thank you so much for commenting. I was just about to put out an APB for the CREATOR of the Obama Brown Twitterbird flurry :-)

I will definitely vote on the panel as well and I hope to make it onto one of them!

Thanks again, I'm changing the caption to give you your proper credit and attribution!

BELLA'S POPS said...

As soon as my brother brought the Slate article for my attention, I knew in my bones that a response was already in the works from someone...
Thank you.

It's all I dreamed it would be. Really. You touched on every point I wanted to make. All of them.
Thank you!

ESP said...

Excellent post as always.. "Would we overwhelm the populace?" Is that a Wu-Tang allusion?

John Powers said...

Great post. I saw Farhad Majoo's article via a tweet from Ethan Zuckerman @EthanZ. I even thought to send you the link because I suspected you'd have something to say about it. So happy you wrote a longish piece on the subject.

Zuckerman knows that many of the pressing problems we face today are global problems, so the question he's been working on is how the Internet can facilitate dialog across boundaries. He's one of the founders of Global Voices.

Long wind up, but Zuckerman identifies "bridge figures" as a important part of facilitating dialog.

Now as a middle-aged white guy, I sort of see you as a bridge figure. But wait, I also know such consideration is a drag. The whole representative of a race idea just sucks.

I started following you during G20. Obviously stuck around because you post on so many interesting topics, including racism.

I'd be curious about your thoughts in re the notion of bridge figures to facilitate online dialog between people of color and white folk in the US. Clearly you act in that capacity sometimes, but also it seems clear there's something creepy about being put in that role by others.

Dr. Goddess said...

@Bella's Pops, thank you! It's rare that I fulfill someone's every need! And all it took was a post? Fantastic!

@ESP Thank you so much, especially since I just started back to blogging. Wu Tang Clan? Love them but to my knowledge, I was just doing me.

@John I'm an educator by trade, so that's a natural bridge. On "race" issues, I usually only speak for me but since racism is a part of American history (and its historical present), it's an issue I have no problem addressing.

For me, bridge building does come with dialogue but even more importantly,it comes with understanding of one's history and humanity. To the extent I can do that, that's certainly fine. I'm not familiar with Zuckerman but I'll have to look him up.

Thanks for following since the G-20! That's pretty hardcore of you!

John Powers said...

Ethan Zuckerman and Global Voices are definitely worth checking out. My question about the trouble with being a bridge figure is pretty obscure. But sort of related is a piece in The Chronicle about students thinking professors hot--that's awkward. I was intrigued that one professor said she made sure to dress in cute outfits for hard discussion of race!

ESP said...

Okay then.. You're alluding without realizing it! From "For Heaven's Sake":

"Now all pay tribute to this entity / A spark that surges through the undergrowth / overwhelmin the populace from the entry / The Wu-Tang Dynasty, has emerged"

I figured such a unique turn of phrase had to be a reference, but maybe it's just great minds thinking alike. 8)

Eric Williams said...

1) Interesting article. Glad I read it.
2) Wow. The irony is thick enough to cut with a knife.

"Sadly, when the mainstream attempts to describe or otherwise represent us and our lives, they choose the #browntwitterbird with the boombox, watermelon (and no Blackberry) in hand, standing next to the bucket of chicken. Yes, mainstream America, that is how you see us and, truthfully, that's a slice of how some of us are (at times)."

To that I must say, "NON-BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT A MONOLITH". It's very difficult to overcome racial divides when members of group A loudly decry over-generalizations and stereotyping by making overly general and stereotyped accusations of group B. You don't know me. You don't know my life. As a sheltered middle-class white guy, I freely admit to ignorance of much of black culture(s) in America (or anywhere, really). That doesn't mean I'm Fuzzy Zoeller. ;)

Dr. Goddess said...

Eric, thanks for commenting. I'm well aware that non-Black people are not a monolith and there is nothing I stated that would indicate such. American media perpetuate a very narrow view of Black people and, as a result of the media and the segregation in America, the majority of white people DO share similar ideas about Black people, even those well-intentioned. That's not monolithic, it's American cultural supremacy.

Thanks for commenting and see you on Twitter, @FunkyDung