Online news sites are increasingly covering the phenomena of black people on Twitter. For example, just last month Gizmodo published an article about stalking sexy black women on Twitter (prompting this response from Black Web 2.0). Two days ago Slate published an article by Farhad Manjoo titled “How Black People Use Twitter.” If online sites continue to report about the use of black people on Twitter, I think we will probably see mainstream news outlets pick up the story in the near future. This may be done in a similar fashion to the way that single and successful black women were analyzed about their inability to get married a few months ago.
While I’m sure that the editors of Gizmodo and Slate had their hearts in the right place when they decided to publish these posts, I think that these articles and others like them suffer from the following three broad deficiencies:
They present the perception that the existence of black people on Twitter is something that should be analyzed for entertainment purposes. In his piece for Slate, Manjoo’s initial curiosity about the use of Twitter by black people was based his observation of comical trending topics. So, he became interested in black people on Twitter because he was entertained by what he saw them posting on Twitter. This brings to mind the long tradition of minstrel shows and the work of actor Stepin Fetchit which both presented entertainment for white audiences by engaging in stereotypes about African Americans. It also hints at the idea that the presence of black people on Twitter is odd because it shows minorities using a technically sophisticated tool and this goes against stereotypes about the racial makeup of technologists.
These articles also give young black people the impression that they have to adhere to stereotypes in order for their tweets to be interesting. This reinforces the posting of tweets that are written in order to get attention instead of to provide substance. A more meaningful discussion of the use of technology by black people can be found in articles that have already run on Black Web 2.0 like 7 Ways to Change a Young Girl’s Life with Tech and 7 Ways to Save a Young Boy’s Life with Tech. Young black people need to see that new media tools like Twitter enable them to better understand technology, become entrepreneurs, improve their networking skills, and learn other valuable life lessons. They can do much more than just provide comic relief.
Articles like the ones run by Gizmodo and Slate also undermine a serious study of black online culture. Black people on Twitter are not an oddity to be pondered over. Actual research is needed to determine the socio-economic reasons that African Americans have taken so strongly to Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools. For example, the low cost and widespread availability of Internet-connected cell phones provide an easy way for black people to get online. This closing of the digital divide by mobile phones may have provided the mechanism for black people to get access to tools like Twitter. Also, there is a long oral tradition among African Americans that developed because for many decades it was illegal to teach a black person to read in America. Therefore, there is an interesting irony to the fact that young black people are taking to an electronic form of reading and writing to express themselves. Finally, the tight knit sense of family (evidenced by the custom of black people referring to each other as brothers and sisters despite often having no actual blood relationships) may explain why black people are so connected to each other on Twitter. These are actual focus areas that can drive a meaningful academic discussion.
If other online sites continue to examine the use of Twitter by African Americans, they would do a far better service to their readers if they went beyond examining the sexiness of black Twitter users or simply exploring their entertainment value. There is a much richer story to report if they take the time to explore it.