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  • How is Black Twitter carving out space for the Black experience?
  • How is Black Twitter carving out space for the Black experience?
    Cottonbro (2020 ©
CASE STUDY

Black Twitter: the digital collective for Black voices

Centered around the experiences and opinions of Black users, Black Twitter is a subculture on the platform where Black voices are unfiltered. This collective explores Black identity and demonstrates the positive impact of community in times of crisis and racial injustice.

Location United States

Scope
From humorously mocking the debacle of the September 2020 presidential debate to accusing Adele of cultural appropriation for wearing Bantu knots, Black Twitter is more than just a collective community of Black voices, it’s a cultural juggernaut that’s touched almost every aspect of American society since the late 2000s. Hard to define and ever-shifting, it has not only enabled millions of Black Twitter users to participate in culture-specific conversations and find community within a community, it’s also given mainstream culture a view into how Black people talk and joke among themselves. “It was one of the first spaces that White people could see how creative Black people are with our discourse, and how we used a technology that wasn’t originally designed for us,” explains Dr. André Brock, associate professor of media studies at The Georgia Institute of Technology. [1]

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The origins of Black Twitter have been debated and while there’s no clear date for its birth, some key moments in the 2010s defined its potential. In 2014, when Michael Brown’s death prompted the #Ferguson hashtag to begin trending, Essence dedicated an issue to the hashtag, bringing the murder to international attention. [2] Awareness was also raised around Sandra Bland’s death through #SayHerName, and Eric Garner’s with #ICantBreathe. Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there were over 390 million tweets about Black Lives Matter and the platform finds engagement is as high as the total conversation volume. [3] Although summer 2020’s events propelled Black Twitter into the spotlight, “this sort of congregating and conversation – and even strategizing and mobilizing – is not new,” says Dr. Meredith Clark, media studies assistant professor at the University of Virginia. [4] From #OscarsSoWhite pushing the Academy Awards to double its amount of women and minority members to #PaulasBestDishes calling out Paula Deen’s racial discrimination, Black Twitter speaks up in a world accustomed to ignoring the needs of the Black community.

The platform also opens up a space for Black people to relate to each other and feel less alone, which may differ from their lives offline. “[It] allows that shared collectivity – to not have to work to make people understand who you are,” says Dr. Brock. [5] With 58% of Black Americans feeling misunderstood by mainstream news, Twitter has become a way for them to express themselves freely and relate to others without misconstrued representation about who they really are. [6] From coining the viral ‘eyebrows on fleek’ phrase to dialing into all the variations of the ‘Black mom’ phrase, Black Twitter makes room for dialogue specific to the Black experience. “To me, Black Twitter is essentially an extension of my Black urban experience. It’s a bunch of people like me,” says user Michael Arceneaux. [7] With a quarter (24%) of Black Americans using Twitter, it’s an important platform for the Black community. [8] But what does this tell us about how the Black community mobilizes? And can it help brands better understand the needs and wants of the Black community?

People are looking for positive, happy moments on social media
People are looking for positive, happy moments on social media
Anaya Katlego (2018) ©

Context
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the flurry of kneejerk statements, Twitter users have been instrumental in calling out hypocritical brands and businesses. “Black Twitter [goes] back into the archives of things the brands had done or said and presents them back using the phrase ‘This You?’ to indicate that we realize what you are doing is a PR move – that this isn’t a genuine investment on the community,” says Dr. Clark. [4] From H&M to Disney being grilled with the #ThisYou hashtag, Black Twitter has solidified itself as a springboard for call-out culture and often encourages accountability from those being reprimanded. The impact of this is significant – 80% of Black Americans would buy or boycott based on a brand's response to the 2020 protests and 73% agree that brands that release statements in support of racial equality need to follow them up with concrete action to avoid being seen as exploitative or opportunistic. [9]

As demonstrated by the backlash against Rachel Dolezal and Black studies professor Dr. Jessica Krug for pretending to be Black, the platform has become a place for Black identity to be verified. The #AskRachel hashtag saw people putting questions to Dolezal to test her knowledge of what it means to be Black. [10] From mentions of afro hair to the Black household, these tweets captured experiences Black people could relate to. “There is a community connection and identity maintenance … people are identifying what it means to be Black in a mediated way and testing their authenticity,” says Dr. Clark. [4] With 74% of Black adults saying that being Black is very important to how they think about themselves, Black Twitter is an opportunity for users to connect to their community as well as their Black identity. [11] It caters to a plethora of subgroups, making exclusion uncommon. “Individual people may have different reasons for being in this group but you could understand the overall capacities and actions of this group to be unified in a certain way,” says Dr. Brock. [5]

“[Black Twitter has] taken what was traditionally in the United States, a leadership style that we were used to – a very hierarchical approach to leadership – it’s flattened it and allowed more people to get involved in ways that they couldn’t before,” says Dr. Clark. [4] Indeed, it’s become a place for people to strategize, plan activism, and create change. The summer of 2020 has shown how people use the social media outlet to organize BLM protests. Since the protests began in late May 2020, almost a fifth of all replies, quotes, and retweets on Twitter in the US are about BLM. [3] Instead of one leader, there’s been a participatory culture whereby anyone can make a call to action. However, Dr. Brock underlines that digital activism doesn’t always deliver the intended result. “Although it can be marshaled to make noise, there’s not always a clear connection to the juridical, legislative policy initiatives that guard our everyday lives.” [5] Despite the many Twitter threads, posts, and GIFs calling for Breonna Taylor’s murderers to face punishment – not to mention international news coverage – justice has not been served. [12]

People want to see accurate depictions of their lived experiences
People want to see accurate depictions of their lived experiences
Jeffery Erhunse (2020) ©

Insights and opportunities

Celebrate Black joy
With racial tensions reaching a boiling point, constant coverage and exposure to racial violence is worsening Black people's psychological health. Indeed, 76% of Gen Zers often see visual depictions of racial violence in their social feeds, and 83% say it makes them feel depressed or hopeless. [13] But by holding powerful corporations and people to account, Black Twitter and other community-led platforms may have a role to play in providing light relief and hope. “What Blackness brings to Twitter is its love of wordplay and emotional character. Twitter is a place for expressing shared cultural commonplaces that bring people joy or bring people life,” says Dr. Brock. [5] And with 86% of Black Gen Zers wanting to see and celebrate joy and more positive moments on social media, hashtags like #BlackAndHooded, which celebrates Black graduates, and #BlackMenSmiling, as well as VSCO’s Black Joy Matters initiative, are reminders of success and happiness, which the community needs – especially in times of crisis. [13]

Biased features must be addressed for full authenticity
For brands to support the Black community with full transparency, it’s important to ensure that their own systems are reviewed in their attempts to address racism. Big tech companies were quick to release pro-BLM statements, but continue to uphold biased systems such as Twitter’s image-cropping which prioritizes White faces over Black ones. [14] Airbnb’s Project Lighthouse, for example, focuses on how Black users experience racism on the platform, rather than addressing the White people responsible for those experiences. It’s no wonder, then, that only 19%of US adults believe brands issue anti-racism statements out of “genuine concerns about the treatment of Black people,” finds Pew. [15] Research by Canvas8 finds that 43.9% of African Americans see or believe injustices against minorities are happening on Twitter, showing that tackling covert systematic racism is just as important as tackling hate speech on the platform. [16]

Black people need to be represented in their reality
Twitter has become a popular forum for Black users to communicate with and relate to each other, which only serves to highlight the failure of other platforms to represent the Black community. In fact, 32%of Black Americans don’t believe they're represented in marketing materials and 40% say their communities aren’t represented. [17] Television and popular culture, such as Insecure and Dear White People, both directly connect to the Black experience and present realistic depictions of Black identity. The expectation is, therefore, that brands reject stereotypical representations of Black identity, and pursue real, raw storytelling when it comes to Black experiences. “In the same way that Black people have found ways to congregate and be in community with one another,” says Dr. Clark. “We will continue to do that even after Twitter is no more.” [4]

Sources
1. The Guardian (December 2019)
2. Essence (August 2014)
3. Twitter (June 2020)
4. Interview with Dr. Meredith Clark conducted by the author
5. Interview with Dr. André Brock conducted by the author
6. Pew Research Center (June 2020)
7. Washington Post (January 2014)
8. Pew Research Center (April 2019)
9. Edelman (June 2020)
10. Vibe (June 2015)
11. Pew Research Center (April 2019)
12. The Guardian(September 2020)
13. VSCO Press (August 2020)
14. The Guardian (September 2020)
15. Pew Research Center (August 2020)
16. Canvas8 (August 2020)
17. Morning Consult (July 2020)

Featured Experts

Dr. Meredith Clark

Dr. Meredith Clark is assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of the award-winning dissertation ‘To Tweet Our Own Cause’ which landed her on The Root’s list of the most influential African Americans in the US.

Dr. André Brock

Dr. André Brock is associate professor of media studies at The Georgia Institute of Technology. A preeminent scholar of Black cyberculture, he is the author of ‘Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures.

Author

Karen Muleba is the editorial assistant at Canvas8. She holds a degree from the University of the Arts London and has had work featured on TPOF. Outside of work, you'll find her at her favourite music gig or finding inspiration at a creative event.

Canvas8

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