Hashing It Out
Some of the most unforgettable moments from this year’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony were related to the movie Hidden Fences. The movie, which doesn’t exist, was an embarrassing portmanteau made from two real films that had been nominated for awards, Hidden Figures and Fences. The real films, whose casts are led by black actors, were conflated two different times that evening by two different white people: Jenna Bush Hager and Michael Keaton.
Inspired, the Twitterverse lit up with other fake movies about black experience. The Color Precious, A Raisin in the Moonlight, and Twelve Years a Butler are not coming to a theater near you. But they are a good example of the type of banter you might find on Black Twitter.
Black Twitter is a virtual community created by and for black Twitter users. Steeped in black culture, it’s a place for debates, wisecracks, and wit. It’s also cultivated grassroots campaigns that have brought social justice issues into the mainstream media’s spotlight.
Though it’s narrowing, there is still a race-based digital divide in the United States. In terms of access and the number of internet users, white people are still the majority—except when it comes to Twitter, According to a Pew Research study, 28 percent of white internet users ages 18–29 are on Twitter, compared to 40 percent of their black counterparts. Of this latter group, nearly 80 percent also report they use Twitter daily. What makes Twitter different?
According to Andre Brock, an assistant professor of communication studies, there are a few reasons. Of all of the amazing features you can find on a smartphone, texting remains the most popular. At 140 characters, composing a tweet is a lot like composing a text. Moreover, Brock continues, black people are more likely to own smartphones than either whites or Hispanics, and black users often tweet about subjects that relate to being black. In fact, he says “most of the tweets black Twitter users see are about race or race relations. And nearly 30 percent of black users say that most of what they post themselves is about race or race relations.”
The #SayHerName campaign was launched in February of 2015. Activists wanted to ensure the protests about police violence included women's and girls' stories as well as men's.
a katz / Shutterstock.com
Such conversations have always happened, of course, but they’ve usually taken place in private, segregated spaces. Now that they’re happening online in the private-cum-public world of social media, anyone can click on a trending hashtag and listen in. In this way, Black Twitter has expanded the number of voices we hear discussing issues related to politics and culture. It’s also amplified these conversations, catapulting their language into the mainstream.
Twitter users can add a hashtag (#) to a word or phrase to make it more searchable or to promote a topic. Hashtags allow people to follow topics rather than individuals, which, as Brock explains, “invites a wider audience.”
Some of the most familiar hashtags—#BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, #SayHerName, #ICan’tBreathe—have come from Black Twitter. These hashtags rose to national prominence and brought attention to the events that inspired them. In this way, activists have used Twitter’s reach and its proximity to powerful media platforms to create social change. Activism is one reason Black Twitter hashtags have gained such extraordinary visibility. Another is Twitter’s algorithm, which churns through hashtags from different parts of the world to identify what’s popular in a particular place at a given moment. Black Twitter hashtags generate such rapid reactions that they are frequently elevated by the algorithm. They elicit such spirited reactions, Brock says, because they issue an invitation for a response in the tradition of African American wordplay.
The audience, says Brock, “is not a few isolated users off in a virtual corner somewhere. The hashtag is crucial to understanding Black Twitter as a community. These are the coherent practices of a digital public instead of just noise picked up by the trending algorithm.”
Bucking the Trend
Black Twitter has also accelerated the process by which the mainstream appropriates black culture—especially its slang. A trending Black Twitter hashtag elevates a word, and the wider culture sees and gloms onto it. The word is repeated so often that it joins the internet’s lingual swirl until it is worn ragged from overuse.
“Slang terms that might only have been adopted locally or regionally now get taken up nationally,” Brock says. Take, for example, “on fleek,” which began with a six-second Vine video in which a young black woman says her beautifully groomed eyebrows are “on fleek.” The video went viral, and the term flooded social media until even IHOP and Taco Bell were tweeting it. Before social media and Black Twitter, says Brock, “’on fleek’ might never have been heard beyond the young lady’s original circle of friends.”
Black Twitter has delineated a racial and cultural space in the digital world that had previously been embodied in the real one. “What Black Twitter has brought to light is that all online culture and digital practice, like offline culture, has a cultural and a racial component,” Brock says.
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