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Missing the Point: The Real Story of Black People on Twitter

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.

    24 Comments

    Comments

    I am speechless about this post. I truly appreciate the post, I believe every single black person who tweet regularly should read this post.

    @Mrnjwilson: Thank you!

    Mrnjwilson says:

    This was well done. I wish I had thought of this column. But nonetheless, you hit the nail on the head. I look forward to reading your insights on other issues.

    @Lauren: Thanks for the link to your piece. While being sexy or entertaining are not bad labels in and of themselves, I think we'll need many more examples of African American business people, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, presidents, governors, etc., before I am comfortable with using them to describe black people.

    Lauren says:

    Liked the piece a lot. But if you are interested in articles that analyze a bit as to why this phenom is taking place, I actually did a piece for Business Insider exploring this somewhat back in early May. http://www.businessinsider.com/author/lauren-co… In addition though, I would like to say I think there is great power in being “sexy” and “entertaining” so long as it's not the only thing we are seen as. I say we need to take it all: from sexy to academic. Leave nothing on the table!

    @Jeneba and @photrex7: Thanks! You two both touch on the truth that the African American experience, while united in light of a shared history, is multi-faceted and complex in how we currently live our lives. Black Web 2.0, I believe, exists to provide a living example of that diversity.

    @photrex7 says:

    I, being a black male, completely comprehend the point(s) you raise in your article. I am a Twitter user, select carefully whom I elect to follow because I believe the tool has an incredible capacity to raise awareness based on that principle alone; obviously there are other reasons, however, I tend to be overly verbose…so let's make this brief.

    I also understand that 140 characters limits what an individual can say and determines, for the most part, how a particular message may be relayed. I believe what remains most consuming for critics or analysts of blacks using Twitter and other social media tools is the perpetuation of the myth that blacks cannot harness the cognitive abilities necessary to put together cogent thoughts, and therefore, blacks rely heavily on the use of ebonics to communicate with their peers…an often incomprehensible shorthand that is by its very nature uninclusive in social arenas where making connections, establishing followings is at the root of tools such as Twitter.

    Notwithstanding, a very thoughtful piece. Kudos!

    Excellent piece, Anjuan! We were talking about this very show yesterday on a show I co-host and a caller said that what the Slate article was akin to was eavesdropping on a conversation on the street between a group of people and using that conversation to generalize about how all blacks use Twitter. If the person goes down the street and hear a different conversation such as the conversation that goes on between older blacks and those who use twitter to share ideas, information and for businesses purposes, the author would have discovered a deeper story there. But like many on this article already commented, that would require taking an extra step to really try to understand cultural uses of technology. Who has time for that?

    @Reefinyateef: Thanks! One of the beautiful things about technology is its potential to offer a level playing field.

    Reefinyateef says:

    Fantastic article! What bothers me is this assumption that technology is white and male and anything else is a perversion

    Thank you for all of the links to older stories.

    @Terrance: Thanks!

    @Monica: Thanks for the comment! I agree that these articles often show a lack of even a small knowledge of black culture. I think that Baratunde meant well when he made the comparison to the “dozens”, but it was an analogy that was very limited.

    @Fave: Thanks! I hope we all get involved in telling our story!

    @Amani: That was a well done article!

    @Faith: I am working on that and hope to publish the findings in the near future.

    faithmight says:

    Great research points. I hope now that after writing this article, you will be a part of writing the research and its findings. This actual action is a much better response rather than another rant on stereotypes. We (as bloggers) need to give deeper analysis for our audiences as well. Just my humble opinion.

    amanichannel says:

    Thanks for sharing. You inspired me to write (blog) about that whack article.

    http://www.myurbanreport.com/2010/08/black-peop

    favecast says:

    AMEN! There is a much bigger story that must be shared re: our culture's impact on technology beyond “entertainment.” I believe it's up to 'us' to tell it. . .and no one else.

    Get 'em…sistah (I did that on purpose)

    MONICA says:

    When I read the article I said “wait? what?” I could not get past the author considered the way that Black poeple used Twitter as an anomaly. I find it interesting that the way Black people use social media is studied by people who have no intimate knowledge of black culture, as evidenced by the comparison of the hashtag phenomenom to the dozens. “You're kidding right?”

    Why do Black people use twitter the way we do? Ask and find out.

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