We Can't Belong to Black Twitter.
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
What does it mean to belong to something or to someone or to yourself? To truly see yourself as others do. To truly hear yourself as others do. Does belonging feel like the constant need to identify with something? Or, is it the constant desire to identify with someone? Is it to search for validation and proof that your life, your voice and your body makes the vessel that you inhabit less lonely? The plight of Black folk in America can be viewed through many lenses, but one that catches the eye is our complicated sense of belonging to a country that pervasively and historically deems us as less than human. Slavery birthed an abyss. An abyss that, “projects a reverse image of all that had been left behind, not to be regained for generations except – more and threadbare – in the blue savannas of memory or imagination,” (Glissant, 7). The cloudiness of our attention is increased due to the immediacy of connectivity. This abyss, the projection of our reverse images grow even more complicated than they already were prior to the digitizing of our bodies. As Black Americans dive deeper into the depths of this inundated abyss, searching for a bearing to our being, Saidiya Hartman posits the question, “How does one write a story about an encounter with nothing?” (Hartman, 16).
One story could be the collective imagination of Black Americans. Through our communal dreams and visions, journeying through the abyss leads to, “an embodied practice that ‘flourishes in the place where imagination and memory converge,’ and offers, through bodily movement, a means of thinking the otherwise unthinkable, and articulating the otherwise unspeakable,” (Kaplan, 516). Referred to as the concept of kinesthetic imagination by Joseph Roach. Linking this embodied practice to the structural organizations that Black folk adopted and created to oppose the pervasiveness of whiteness, this imagination for belonging, release and memory is in the fiber of the complexities of Black Americans.
As the world becomes increasingly more connected through the internet, the global surveillance of Black folk is on display at greater possibilities. What were once spaces of belonging are now obsolete in our progressively dystopian realities with technology. So, where do we continue to unravel now? Where does the Black body go to find refuge in the digital age of surveillance? In this essay, I will survey the imaginative possibilities of community that Black folk have created online. Through the historical detail, I will then discuss how the social media site, Twitter and the subgroup of Black Twitter, have crafted a vulnerable and transformative sense of belonging for Black folk, but still act as an analogical state. Then, I will conclude by offering the analysis that the concept of Blackness and Black identity is a stateless one with inquiries surrounding whether we will ever reach a Black utopia that we’ve imagined.
“I saw things I imagined”
In 1990, as the world wide web exploded our connectivity to one another, the rise of online communities designated for a forum of dialogue surrounding the Black diaspora exploded as well. To have access, to communicate with others outside of our already available network was a very attractive asset to the world wide web. These became, in their own right, imagined communities. According to Benedict Anderson, the nation is an imagined political community, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion,” (Anderson, 6). An inherent nationalism is expected, required even. The explosion of the world wide web literally fared well with this concept of imagined communities as folks began to discover more comradeship with people around the globe. For Black folk these communities acted as networks for topical dialogues about worldwide African culture. These online chatrooms were designed to categorize Black dialogue in pervasively white online space. AOL Black Voices Chat Rooms, BlackPlanet, Black People Meet, Black Enterprise, UBO, Hookt, EverythingBlack, MySpace, BLNK, etc. all served as the purpose of providing a nuance to Black dialogue that stemmed from having the opportunity to choose the community you’ve imagined and fully immerse yourself into a Black experience, that was seemingly free from whiteness. These served as precursors to the social networking sites we have today like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.
One website specifically from the early days of world wide web was NetNoir. NetNoir was also known as the “The Soul of Cyberspace” and “The Black Network.” It was a membership-based web community centered around the promotion of Black culture and lifestyle. According to CEO David Ellington, NetNoir provided an arena for people to congregate and connect. With audio and visual streaming, recorded poetry, an e-commerce venue and over 20 chatrooms, NetNoir, was a “social hotbed,” (McKay, 158). Averaging about 600,000 visitors monthly, NetNoir aided in the archiving of imagined communities for Black folk that implicitly act as the blueprint for our current online deliberations. These formative spaces for online Black discourse amplified the performance of Blackness, archiving the language, the style, the flair. “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuiness, but by the style in which they are imagined,” (Anderson, 6). Blackness is predicated on the separation of whiteness and the liberation from a white nationhood, this stylized imagination was built on being distinguished. To be outside, to create our own. To just be. These online chat rooms became that for Black folk. It became the epicenter of connectivity that allowed for shared experiences to be acknowledged, embraced and performed routinely. It is important to note that these online chats were designed for adults and were adult-oriented dialogues, although teens perused the sites unknowingly.
The formation of a hegemonic afro-centric Black performance was creating itself through these online communities. As a networked archive of Blackness began to rise through these online communities, so did the portrayal of public and private self. This new availability allowed Black folks to mask themselves as who they imagined to be and who they imagined interacting with, ultimately giving themselves the opportunity to escape their realities. The use of avatars on these platforms allowed users to say what they want, be who they wanted to be and progressively engage in dialogue they otherwise wouldn’t do at the Sunday dinner table. “The conversations in Black online spaces recounted above discussed what it meant to be Black in public; where American cultural values dictate that Black communities feel that only those who conform best to White values should represent Blacks to the world,” (Brock, 32).
Jumping to the 2010s, close to twenty years with the world wide web, a sub-group imagined community on the site, Twitter, took form and no one knew of its strong potential impact or influence. Black Twitter, formed in 2010, can be described as the sizable Black presence on Twitter that draws an accountability to have discourse surrounding popular, taboo and/or unfavorable aspects of Blackness holistically. This coalition of Black Twitter users dominated the platform with a nuance to the deliberations surrounding the Black experience in America, often critiquing the positioning of Blackness in the rhetoric of Obama’s post-racial societal ideology. Through the 2010s, it has become a soundboard for “wokeness.” Wokeness can aptly be described as Generation Z’s revelation of consciousness, an awakening they underwent as they became more aware of racial, gender and sexual discrimination in America. So, in this current era of Trump, Black Twitter remains the leading source of dialogue of Blackness, as opposed to other social media sites that proactively have lost the trust of Black folk. For example, due to the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Facebook users felt blindsided as they learned that their data was used in favor of Trump’s Election. #DeleteFacebook, that ironically trended on Twitter, prompted users to delete their Facebook pages and/or use Facebook less. According to Kurt Wagner and Rani Molla, in 2017, less than “roughly 50 million hours’ per day were spent on Facebook from their users. Outside of this, Black Facebook users consistently feel as if they are being censored when they discuss racism online, citing that Facebook removes their posts as violating standards for hate speech, “to avoid being flagged, they use digital slang such as "wypipo," emojis or hashtags to elude Facebook's computer algorithms and content moderators. They operate under aliases and maintain back-up accounts to avoid losing content and access to their community,” (Guynn, 2019). Twitter, on the other hand, removes tweets and shut down accounts of those who inflict racist attacks towards users (Guynn, 2017). This is not to claim that Twitter’s algorithm for sniffing out racism is stronger, but rather to acknowledge the rhetoric a Black user has to undergo on a platform that polices language, while also making your data widely available without your permission. In the constant search for a sense of belonging, Black Twitter provides that comfort and discomfort for many Black folk to feel heard, seen and exposed to the fullness of Blackness, but it can also produce an ambivalence that is unrecognizable of how Twitter serves as the analogical state with comparable apparatuses of surveillance that effected the earlier imagined communities of Black ideological conception. These same rules and hierarchies that Black Twitters chooses to negate in their dialogue are the same rules and hierarchies that the state presents to continue to surveil the Black body.
Black Twitter & Post Blackness in the Trump Era.
#TrayvonMartin, #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, #OscarsSoWhite. These hashtags are critical defining moments for the cultural impact of Black Twitter during the 2010s. After the murder of sixteen-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2015, there was a digital uprising happening alongside public outrage brewing outside of the web. Known for their “clapbacks” and humor, Black Twitter, at this moment, cemented themselves into the fiber of the Black American experience. This once imagined community was now a real community, a community that could not escape from their bitter realities. Known to have launched the careers of activists, such as DeRay, Shaun King, Bree Newsome, Alicia Garza, etc. Black Twitter became the place where our politicized bodies and our imaginations met.
Even through this digital uprising, there is still an inherent exclusivity present to Black Twitter. You have to be Black to participate. Through the signification with memes, hashtags and trending topics, Black folk have circumvented the algorithm of Twitter to serve as a curated stream of Black consciousness at their demand, but it does come at the cost of some folks being left out. According to Sarah Florini who quotes André Brock, “Black users often perform their identities through displays of ‘cultural competence’ and the use of other noncorporal signifiers that rely on ‘social and cultural resources’ (Brock 2009). Verbal performance, linguistic resources, and modes of interaction are key means through which Black users perform their racial identities on Twitter. One such cultural resource is the practice of “Signifyin’,” (Florini, 224). Florini describes Signifyin’ as an embedded variety of discourses that is a deeply collaborative practice. It is about cultural competency.
For example, most recently, Black Twitter has engaged in a critical conversation around the film, Queen & Slim(2019). Many reviews were not favorable, citing it as shallow and weak story development. Writer of the film, Lena Waithe, accepted the criticism well, but as more critiques started to come forward an interesting moment happened. The casting call, which has since been removed from Twitter, for the character Queen was released and it stated that they were searching for a character that was dark, dark as if she was an outside slave. This insensitive and peculiar way to describe a character led into a larger backlash of Waithe’s writing holistically. To evaluate her skill and mimic her for her arbitrary writing, Black Twitter users began #TweetLikeALenaWaitheScript. This sparked a cleverly composed weeklong Twitter dialogue where Black users were writing in the voice of Lena as they compared characters to large systems of injustices that pervasively effect Black folk.
“her pussy was as sweet as the sugar plantation her ancestors worked in — sweeter than the apple pies the house slaves baked. ass softer than the cottons that were picked...making it a hot commodity” - @pinkdreamZ
“She fried chicken; it was battered like the men, women and children during the Civil Rights Movement.” - @slvterhvley
This unique display of commentary surrounding a Black writer’s choices, is a valid critique of lack of nuance in the writing of Black characters. To be able to participate, you need the cultural competency. One would have to understand the representation of Black folk in film to be able to recognize that Lena Waithe is a legacy of that irresponsible writing formula. If a user has no cultural understanding of Blackness, they will not be able to participate in the cultural dialogue. Yes, one can take notes and research to understand, but it is the innate understandings of being Black that allows for the secret and private signification through memes, hashtags and trending topics to gift out cultural capital to those “who get it.”
These unwritten intra-cultural boundaries also have the ability to expel those who do not confine. This exclusivity fits into the broader understanding of Twitter as an analogical state due to the exclusivity of secret societies and clubs that operate either alongside or against the state. In the case of Black Twitter, the exclusivity and collective decision of entry into the entity acts as a state. Black Twitter has the ability to let Black folks in, suspend, block and even “cancel” folks from Black dialogue if it does not align with this concept of Blackness that is heavily centered around being “woke,” especially Post-Trayvon Martin. To be clear, there are varying degrees to cancellation on the platform. Some folks are non-negotiable (Bill Cosby and R. Kelly), while others are sort of “suspended” for a moment. In this age of expelling folks out of Black Twitter, every tweet becomes a loaded political statement with buzz words to prove the dexterity of vocabulary and even insults those who lack the elitist formal abilities to participate fully. This expulsion, speaks to a “digital death,” which is a direct result of “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is the “cancelling” of someone who has committed, in many cases, an irreversible offense to the online imagined community that can potentially have real world implications. This digital reprimand is similar to acts of the state. When someone does a “crime,” they do the time. It should be noted that the expulsion of someone from a digital platform is nowhere near comparable to the gruesomeness and inhumane treatment of Black folk in the prison industrial complex, this comparison was strictly to emphasize the parameters of access users have to control the collective decision to condemn another user. Until the offender is remorseful enough to reenter this digital society. For example, rapper Kanye West made a statement claiming that slavery was a choice. Black Twitter critically clapped back, as they do best.
This commentary was visceral and called for a public cancelling of Kanye West. Until, he made his return to the hearts of Black Twitter through a major Signifier of Blackness, the remixing of popular gospel songs and a special performances around the nations called “Sunday Service.”
While many of these tweets may be satirical, many users can not tell the difference. The intra-cultural boundaries that surround Black Twitter can barr other Black folk from participation and shun them of cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu describes cultural capital as social assets (education, fashion, language, intellect) that promotes social mobility in a society that is inherently based in categorizing folk. These same users with this cultural capital often lead the conversations surrounding Blackness. It is important to note that this happens primarily with public figures and verified accounts, regular Twitter users have the individual decision to expel someone from Black Twitter, but if that is not made clear, it is assumed by the greater Black Twitter community that one has an allegiance to the offender. This exclusivity and expulsion lies within the hierarchies of the platform that has created a new Black bourgeoisie, referred to as the “Brunch Blacks.”
As these hierarchies present themselves on this online platform, it is clear who is in the forefront of critical discourses of Blackness. Referencing them as the Brunch Blacks, these are the “intellectuals,”, the cultural critics, social activists and influencers that benefit from the cultural capital gained from participating on this medium. They all hold one thing in common, a blue verified check. Being verified on Twitter, simply lets people know that your account is an authentic one, one that represents status. With a blue check, these users are deemed as “credible” sources of commentary, whether it be about Blackness holistically or simply the state of our society.
The Brunch Blacks serve as the new Black Bourgeoisie, setting distinct digital class lines between Black folk with access and Black folk with minimal access. Through complex language, syntax and aggressive undertones, these users are positioned to comment on the saturation of content, media and news about Blackness. They set the precedent for acceptance and expulsion of members, acting as more of a governing board of Black Twitter. “Intellectuals are holders of cultural capital and, even if they are dominated among the dominant, they still belong among the dominant. That is the foundations of their ambivalence,” (Bourdieu, 1973).
Lastly, it was only a matter of time before Black Twitter was commodified for their public discourse of Blackness. According to Nick Srnicek, this commodification is called, platform capitalism. “By providing a digital space for others to interact in, platforms position themselves as to extract data from natural processes, from production process, and from other business and users. They are an extractive apparatus for data,” (Srnicek, 27). While this extractive apparatus for data happens to anyone who engages with the mediums in which they were built, it should be noted that for Black Twitter, the extraction of our data is heightened as Black colloquial language provides an “asset” to brands, elevating them in the marketplace. With the comedic colloquiums and intra-cultural language that Black Twitter provides, platform capitalism has infiltrated our space and reminds us that we are always being surveilled and watched. “While often presenting themselves as empty spaces for others to interact on, they in fact embody a politics,” and this politics will always be centered around disrupting the intimate spaces for Black discourse and dialogue (Srnicek, 27).
Overall, the survey of Black Twitter serves as an opportunity to acknowledge the expansion in dialogue and the complexities of the platform. This is not an exhaustive list of the political structure of Black Twitter, only a snapshot into the deeply embedded abyss that it has become. There is something particularly very vulnerable about Black Twitter that deserves to be recognized. It is deeply honest. Deeply critical. Deeply nuanced. The connectivity allotted to Black users is profound and allows us to create and recreate our imagined communities as the advancements of technology continue to explode. Black Twitter is just making its way through, just as NetNoir did. The eerie truth about this transcendent platform is that the surveillance of Black bodies have not changed. Only now, our deepest truths are becoming data. While Black Twitter may be our collective diary, it cannot be something we pledge allegiance to or belong to.