Are you a black person? Do you use the internet? Do you like social networking? OMG! Are you on "The Twitter?!?!" One of the downsides about being a minority is that when you do something everyone else gawks and stares at you as they never really think about you that much anyway, hence they can't believe that you would talk about something on the Twitter "they" wouldn't be talking about. Or that there would be enough of you chatting on the Twitter to make trending topics. Yet! There you are! Making trending topics! How on Earth did this happen? The Awl was the first site I noticed to stand and gawk at something they called "Black People's Twitter," which I always thought was "bored teenagers up late at night on their smart phones, talking shit." But, you know, a lot of those teenagers are black and they manage to get trending topics going so THIS IS A THING! And apparently it needs to be discussed and we need to understand "why." Our friends at Slate.com (and their over-sized baseball cap wearing, black Twitter bird*) are on the case!
What explains the rise of tags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble? Are black people participating in these types of conversations more often than nonblacks? Are other identifiable groups starting similar kinds of hashtags, but it's only those initiated by African-Americans that are hitting the trending topics list? If that's true, what is it about the way black people use Twitter that makes their conversations so popular? Then there's the apparent segregation in these tags. While you begin to see some nonblack faces after a trending topic hits Twitter's home page, the early participants in these tags are almost all black. Does this suggest a break between blacks and nonblacks on Twitter—that real-life segregation is being mirrored online?
After watching several of these hashtags from start to finish and talking to a few researchers who've studied trends on Twitter, I've got some potential answers to these questions. Black people—specifically, young black people—do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service. They form tighter clusters on the network—they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies—posts directed at other users. It's this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people—and in particular, black teenagers—the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.
I like the Twitter and use it often. (Follow me @blacksnob!) But I honestly don't read too deeply into it. Meaning, black people to me are on Twitter about as much as black people were on MySpace or Facebook. Meaning, everyone I know personally who has been online has had a MySpace or is on Facebook and Twitter and, back in the day, had a page on Black Planet. The notion of things like "Facebook is largely white," seems crazy pants to me, as every black person I know is on Facebook and since 2009, when Facebook hit the mainstream, even people I never expected to be online have popped up there. Facebook only seems white because a lot of white people only know other white people on Facebook. (It was initially started as a page for Harvard college kids, after all.) Just as a lot of black people on Facebook only know other black people. This is not hard to figure out.
Despite popular belief, black people are online. We're under-represented in some areas, but the advent smart phones have really bridged the gap for some people. Folks who don't have access to computers are able use a Blackberry or an iPhone to access the Web. I've been online since 1996 and I've used computers since I was 10. Yet much like discovering a country where people are already living, anytime the mainstream picks up on something that black people have been doing since forever (wasting time on the internet, shooting the shit like everyone else) it is supposed to be indicative of some larger, big, mysterious thing.
So I'm going to let the world in on the "secrets" of black people on Twitter:
Why are black people on Twitter? Why is everyone on Twitter? The crap is a good way to waste time.
Why do we tweet so much? Why did Lindsey Lohan tweet so much before she went to jail-hab? Some people like to tweet! Some of those people are black but not all those people are black people.
Why are there clusters of black folks who know each other? Um ... friends-of-a-friend? Business associates? Colleagues? Classmates? Relatives? Blog readers? Same reason why there are clusters of witty, urban white gay bloggers who know all the other witty urban white gay bloggers and follow them. Or clusters of Asian writers who follow other Asians. Or tech geeks who follow other techies. Or dirty hipsters who follow other dirty hipsters. There's a whole world on Twitter of Glenn Beck followers and Tea Partiers that I don't know jack crap about because I don't follow those people. But I know they exist. Why is it necessarily more surprising that there are clusters of black people using Twitter as opposed to right wingers? What makes them more fascinating than Beck followers?
But why the trending topic domination at night? Bored teenagers playing with smart phones is always the answer. After all, some white teens and tweens spend a CRAZY amount of time making sure Justin Bieber is a trending topic in some form. It's never special blackity-black thing. Or Lupus.
Now, naturally, I'm sure the author of Slate's piece on black people on Twitter meant well. He was probably just understandably curious. After all, he interviewed a bunch of black people I follow on Twitter who all happen to be either popular bloggers or former writers for The Root. Which is ... OMG! A CLUSTER! Black writers and nerds all follow each other! EEK! Is that a thing? Of course, the cluster of black folks I'm in is a weird mix of folks who LOVE making up "ghetto" hashtags on Twitter and a bunch of intellectuals who get mad at the people for making up hashtags instead of tweeting about Haiti. Where's my study on that? Do white people do this to each other as well? Do they do that thing where you're having a great time retweeting whatever mess Kanye West is saying and one of your friends is all "Ignorance is the seed that gives root to our people's destruction!" Then sends you a link to some Farrakhan? And you tell them to lighten up, because it's only Twitter, but they go on a lengthy rant about limited role of African Americans in the media and how if it appears that a lot of us are wasting time tweeting #ghettobabynames the white folks will read it and make racist assumptions about us based on those tweets and reinstate slavery? And you go "unfollow." And they go "unfollow and BLOCKED!" And then they announce it on their timeline and everyone laughs at you because you just got all dramatic over Twitter?
*Can I just say how kind of wrong that Twitter bird is? One. The Twitter bird is blue. Blue is not a race. It's not anything. Why make the bird brown? Two. Why is the bird wearing an over-sized fitted baseball cap? Is the bird named Tyronne and is he from St. Louis? Does he say things like "I'm from the Durrty" when referring to his hometown? Three. Why not go all they way with the stereotypes? Where is the bird's diamond fronts? Where is his gold chain that says "Bling" on it? Where are his tats? Where is his scantily dressed bird bitch with a bad weave? Where is his doo-rag and feather cornrows? EXPLAIN! If you're going to come off as insensetive, don't waste time being ambigious! Go the full ghetto bird. Make the Twitter bird a diseased pigeon named "Chauncey" who goes by @chigga69 smoking a Swisher Sweet. Or a brown rooster named Cockafella Dynasty Sign.
UPDATE: In the comments, tmainbk left a link to Instant Vintage where you can see a pleathora of "black" Twitter birds. Including one with rims! And one with a doo rag. And even a light-skinned one! You know? For your light-skinnned black Twitter users. Aw, internetz. I love you.