As I reflect on my first two blogs, one on #BlackLivesMatter, and the other on DeRay Mckesson, I have gained a new perspective on a digital subculture that I knew little of. The power of both of these topics, their influence on society, and in particular their digital rhetoric and procedurality leads me down a new path of exploration -- Black Twitter. What is Black Twitter? What is its purpose and mechanism in #BlackLivesMatter and even in DeRay Mckesson’s leadership and prominence on Twitter? #BlackLivesMatter is a proclaimed product of Black Twitter and DeRay Mckesson would be considered an active participant. My 3rd blog explore related questions, but also looks at Black Twitter as a cybertype.
As defined in Lisa Nakamura’s book, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, a cybertype describes the “distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism” (p. 3). Black Twitter means many different things to many different people. Apryl Williams and Doris Domoszlai felt that,
There is no single identity or set of characteristics that define Black Twitter. Like all cultural groups, Black Twitter is dynamic, containing a variety of viewpoints and identities … a social construct created by a self-selecting community of users to describe aspects of black American society through their use of the Twitter platform.
In relation to Black Twitter as a cybertype, this self-selecting digital community is perceived to use specific language, hashtags, and call-and-response, to create a space where participants create unified identities that expose levels of cultural and ideological depth within the Internet and in particular Twitter. But why has Twitter become racialized? Twitter, a social media outlet, has a racially coded world within its cyber walls. So much so, that it is constantly being studied and gaining popularity.
USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab received harsh criticism after their website first advertised their “Black Twitter Project”. The site left off its main investigator, a black PhD student, who’s major focus is studying black women on Twitter. At first glance people thought that three white males were the only project members. They quickly fixed the website, but people still felt uneasy about the incident. In response to this project, io9 came out with an article, “What happens when scientists, study Black Twitter?”. The article raised the following points:
- “has this study become a form of racial profiling, rather than just a sociological investigation?”
- “if people aren't allowed to consent or opt out, a study like this becomes a form of surveillance and profiling”
- “the Black Twitter study has gone a long way toward alienating the group it purports to want to understand. This is an ongoing problem with sociological studies, especially when they are focused on marginalized or oppressed groups”
Black Twitter being studied as a social influencer allows us to see it as contributing facet of cyberspace and as a cybertype. The problems emerging from this study allow us to question how a cybertype is viewed, constructed, and racialized.
Many may call Mikki Kendall an avid Black Twitter participant, who was recently interviewed by the Pacifici Standard Magazine. She talks about the uncomfortable fetishization of Black Twitter and society’s misconstrued view of its purpose and existence. The author, Kira Goldenberg, describes Kendall’s Twitter presence:
But she also tweets—and retweets—about all sorts of other fare, from her addiction to banh mi to rape culture. And that variety, she says, is exactly what the media misses about Black Twitter when reporters swoop in for race-related soundbites: that “cherrypicking” from a multidimensional community leads to misrepresenting it.
Lisa Nakamura explains in Cybertypes, Race Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet, that “the internet is above all a discursive and rhetoric space, a place where “race” is created as an effect of the net’s distinctive use of language” (Xiii) and that “being raced in cyberspace is doubly disorienting, creating multiple layers of identity construction” (Xv). The “cherrypicking” that Kendall refers to brings to light Nakamura’s stance on how specific language can create cyber identities, and also harmful ones.
On the other side, labeling Black Twitter is also showcasing how a shared identity in this online subculture allows an often marginalized group to control the media and its narrative on the current state of #BlackLivesMatter and other racially charged current events. Mikka Kendall tell us that “the assumption is that the media will not talk about these problems honestly or fairly”, therefore Black Twitter can steer the conversation creating a digital narrative that influences real time. Deray Mckesson is a prime example of a Black Twitter member behind the #BlackLivesMatter wheel.
Black Twitter explains the digital rhetoric and procedurality of #BlackLivesMatter, as well explains how DeRay Mckesson gained his prominence on Twitter. Black Twitter’s use of activist hashtags and engaged leaders tells us a digital story and defines a cybertype that shapes digital history.