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?
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.