LO­CAL RE­PORT

FIERCE, FUNNY, AS­SERTIVE AND LARGELY IN­SCRUTABLE, A WHOLE VIR­TUAL COM­MU­NITY HAS BE­COME ONE OF THE MOST POW­ER­FUL VOICES OF OUR TIME. DOES IT EVEN EX­IST?

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS SI­BONGILE MAFU

What is Black Twit­ter?

black Twit­ter. What is it ex­actly? To put it sim­ply, it con­sists of black users of the Twit­ter plat­form who dis­cuss is­sues ac­cord­ing to their own in­ter­ests. Of course, it’s a lit­tle more com­plex than that, as So­raya Na­dia McDon­ald de­tails for The Wash­ing­ton Post in her ar­ti­cle,‘Black Twit­ter: A vir­tual com­mu­nity ready to hash­tag out a re­sponse to cul­tural is­sues’. She ex­plains, ‘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 the US, no cul­tural news story is le­git­i­mate with­out a quote or a hash­tag from Black Twit­ter. In South Africa, it’s also be­come the way in which many sto­ries on pop cul­ture are cov­ered in the me­dia, some­times even be­com­ing the story it­self. Kind of like han­ker­ing af­ter the at­ten­tion of the cool kid in class, ed­i­tors ask, ‘Yes, but what did Black Twit­ter say about it?’

With that la­bel, it be­comes a glo­ri­ous mix of things that make the Twit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence richer, fun­nier and more worth­while for many people. No good story will go unchecked. No tea will re­main un­spilt when some­one shares a juicy piece of gos­sip. No bad out­fit will go un­shaded. (To ‘shade’ is to throw crit­i­cism at some­one in a gen­er­ally dis­re­spect­ful and sly man­ner.) No bum­bling politi­cian will be left un­chal­lenged. It’s a space of ac­tivism, ac­count­abil­ity and ed­u­ca­tion but,some­times, ig­no­rance too.

One of the clear­est ex­am­ples of its ef­fec­tive on­line ac­tivism was in 2013, when people in the US ral­lied to­gether to kill a book deal for a ju­ror in trial of white in­sur­ance un­der­writer Ge­orge Zim­mer­man. (He’d been ac­quit­ted of the mur­der of un­armed black teenagerTrayvon Martin.) In­stances like this point to a vir­tual com­mu­nity that re­flects the com­plex­i­ties of real life largely im­pacted by race.

South African tweeter Gugulethu Mh­lungu (@GugsM), who has amassed some 5 000 fol­low­ers, has mixed feel­ings about it, and feels that la­belling it ‘Black’ is sim­plis­tic, as though the black ex­pe­ri­ence were ho­mo­ge­neous.‘On one level, this idea that black people need to have their own Twit­ter is deeply of­fen­sive. You’re re­in­forc­ing the idea that black isn’t “main­stream” or “nor­mal”, so here’s your spe­cial black space… Black Twit­ter is of­ten just a lazy way of pathol­o­gis­ing black people and their “quirky”Twit­ter ac­tiv­ity.’

One could say even writ­ing about it is just an­other way of ‘try­ing to make sense’ of the black ex­pe­ri­ence – which is not and never has been one thing. But in de­con­struct­ing Black Twit­ter to un­der­stand its pe­cu­liar­i­ties, it seems to be an ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten led by a pow­er­ful group of in­flu­en­tial users (blog­gers, celebri­ties, fem­i­nists and co­me­di­ans) who start many of the con­ver­sa­tions that trend for hours or days – sto­ries cen­tred around child­hood, ed­u­ca­tion and up­bring­ing. Youth ra­dio sta­tion YFM has even cap­i­talised on this kind of trac­tion and has a weekly fea­ture called ‘Tweleb On Air’, where they in­vite who­ever they con­sider to be a prom­i­nent tweeter to talk about a cer­tain is­sue. When the on-air con­ver­sa­tion is then re­flected on Twit­ter, the topic in­evitably goes vi­ral. Mh­lungu says,‘Some people have also come to iden­tify with Black Twit­ter be­cause there are cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences that are com­mon among black people… [Those ex­pe­ri­ences have] cre­ated an on­line com­mu­nity that people feel a part of.’

Many of these ex­pe­ri­ences in­volve race. South African black people re­cently ral­lied around the hash­tag #whiteschools, dis­cussing some of the racist be­hav­iour they were sub­jected to when they at­tended for­mer Model C schools, like hav­ing to wear their hair a cer­tain way and not be­ing al­lowed to speak their home lan­guages.

Apart from shar­ing com­mon ground, other idio­syn­cra­sies in­clude not just what people speak about but also the way they speak about it. When you’re limited to 140 char­ac­ters, a pho­to­graph can be a more elo­quent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how you feel.

Black Twit­ter some­times prefers to voice its dis­dain, amuse­ment, sad­ness and dis­gust vis­ually, through memes and GIFs. Memes of a dancing Ja­cob Zuma, a weep­ing Gor­don Ige­sund or a wine-glass-hold­ing dog make their way onto your time­line to suc­cinctly por­tray how some­one feels about an is­sue that day or about their mood in gen­eral.

But if Black Twit­ter, and its dif­fer­ent way of en­gag­ing about things, does ex­ist, Mh­lungu finds it more prob­lem­atic to ac­cept that Twit­ter is a colour-de­fined space. She says, ‘I have many is­sues with spe­cial places and things for spe­cial bod­ies.’ But it’s the idea that this is a place where black sto­ries can be told and recorded openly by the people who live them that is per­haps what makes it so ap­peal­ing.

When the news of Solange and Jay Z’s el­e­va­tor al­ter­ca­tion post-Met Gala broke, with oblig­a­tory TMZ footage, it be­came one of the most dis­cussed sto­ries on Black Twit­ter this year. Next to Barack and Michelle, the Knowles-Carters are pretty much al­ways top­i­cal in this space. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing memes and jokes as well as dis­cus­sions about the dou­ble stan­dards that sur­round vi­o­lence all epit­o­mised the roller-coaster that is Black Twit­ter. It chal­lenges you, ed­u­cates you, makes you laugh, en­gages with you and, some­times, equally, can be ig­no­rant and over­step the mark.

One ex­am­ple in­volves lo­cal rap­per KO of Tear­gas. Re­cent pho­to­graphs showed him to have shed weight and some sec­tors of Black Twit­ter spec­u­lated he was HIV-pos­i­tive. As the topic trended for hours while people noted his weight loss and weighed in on his health, KO took to In­sta­gram and Twit­ter to squash the ru­mours, post­ing snaps of get­ting tested and re­ceiv­ing a neg­a­tive re­sult. In South Arica, which has the largest num­ber of new HIV in­fec­tions world­wide, it was painful to ob­serve the ridi­cul­ing of some­one to the point where he had to ‘prove’ his sta­tus to avoid be­ing stig­ma­tised. This was Black Twit­ter show­ing its uglier side.

But the in­ci­dent also re­vealed how it’s of­ten the most vi­brant of places to be on­line. And be­cause it’s some­times the messi­est, most en­ter­tain­ing space on Twit­ter, many Black Twit­ter users of­ten jok­ingly say, ‘Let me go to #WhiteTwit­ter’ when they want to es­cape the noise. The run­ning joke is that White Twit­ter is of­ten con­sid­ered the qui­eter, more or­derly neigh­bour­hood of so­cial me­dia.

But if a di­vided Twit­ter does in fact ex­ist, writer Sipho Hlong­wane (@com­rade­sipho) hu­mor­ously notes his dis­dain: ‘I have fought against #WhiteTwit­ter dom­i­na­tion, I have fought against #BlackTwitter dom­i­na­tion…’ – and that prob­a­bly sums it up. The space is for ev­ery­one to use and en­gage with freely. It is the ul­ti­mate democ­racy.

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