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"He can read my writing but he sho can't read my mind."-Zora Neale HurstonTwitter's combination of brevity, multi-platform access, and feedback mechanisms has enabled it to gain mindshare far out of proportion to its actual user base, including an extraordinary number of Black users. How best to understand Twitter's reception and uptake by Black Americans, who surprisingly comprise over a quarter of all U.S. Twitter users? This article approaches Twitter from two perspectives: an analysis of the interface and associated practices alongside critical discourse analyses of online discussions of Twitter's utility and audience. This dual analysis employs critical race and technocultural theory to understand how mainstream online authors (out-group) and Black online authors (in-group) articulate Twitter as a racial artifact employing technocultural practices. Initial findings indicate that Twitter's feature set and multi-platform presence play major roles in mediating cultural performances by Twitter users. These same features also, depending upon the racial affiliation of the discussant, mediate how those cultural performances are understood: for example, Twitter was seen as a venue for civic activism (or public sphere) or as an active facilitator of deficit-based Black cultural stereotypes. Of particular interest are the complex reactions offered by minority and mainstream commenters on the "appropriateness" of Twitter as a Black cultural outlet.
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From the Blackhand Side:
Twitter as a Cultural
Conversation
André Brock a
a Library and Information Science at the University
of Iowa
Version of record first published: 12 Dec 2012.
To cite this article: André Brock (2012): From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a
Cultural Conversation, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56:4, 529-549
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2012.732147
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From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a
Cultural Conversation
André Brock
‘‘He can read my writing but he sho can’t read my mind.’’
—Zora Neale Hurston
Twitter’s combination of brevity, multi-platform access, and feedback mech-
anisms has enabled it to gain mindshare far out of proportion to its actual
user base, including an extraordinary number of Black users. How best to un-
derstand Twitter’s reception and uptake by Black Americans, who surprisingly
comprise over a quarter of all U.S. Twitter users? This article approaches Twit-
ter from two perspectives: an analysis of the interface and associated practices
alongside critical discourse analyses of online discussions of Twitter’s utility
and audience. This dual analysis employs critical race and technocultural
theory to understand how mainstream online authors (out-group) and Black
online authors (in-group) articulate Twitter as a racial artifact employing tech-
nocultural practices. Initial findings indicate that Twitter’s feature set and multi-
platform presence play major roles in mediating cultural performances by
Twitter users. These same features also, depending upon the racial affiliation
of the discussant, mediate how those cultural performances are understood:
for example, Twitter was seen as a venue for civic activism (or public sphere)
or as an active facilitator of deficit-based Black cultural stereotypes. Of par-
ticular interest are the complex reactions offered by minority and mainstream
commenters on the ‘‘appropriateness’’ of Twitter as a Black cultural outlet.
Black Internet usage has become increasingly visible thanks to the integration of
social media into our ev eryday communication habits. Consider ‘‘Black Twitter,’’ the
discovery that Black usage of the popular social media service at times dominated
Twitter discourse. This went against popular perceptions of White-dominated Inter-
net use. Smith (2011) found that 25% of online Blacks used Twitter, compared to
9% of online Whites. Online reactions to Black Twitter focused on the significance
of Black cultural ‘‘trending topics’’ to the new messaging service, either in support
of their cultural specificity or to disparage their contributions.
André Brock (Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) is a professor of Library and Information
Science at the University of Iowa. His research interests include digital and online performances of race and
culture, digital humanities, and African American technoculture.
©2012 Broadcast Education Association Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56(4), 2012, pp. 529–549
DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2012.732147 ISSN: 0883-8151 print/1550-6878 online
529
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530 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
Initially seen as the province of geeks, Twitter’s subsequent uptake by celebrities
increased its mindshare and user base but early reactions to the service dwelt
upon the perceived banality and narcissism of the content. In 2009, however,
Fox, Zickuhr, and Smith found that Blacks used Twitter disproportionately more
than other demographic groups. Soon after, online commentaries on these findings
surfaced, and the mainstream media chimed in soon after. Black blogosphere and
commentariat responses exploded following the publication of a Slate article on the
topic (Manjoo, 2010).
This article juxtaposes these commentaries against a close reading of Twitter’s
interface, using critical technoculture discourse analysis (CTDA). CTDA applies
critical race and technoculture theories to IT artifacts and accompanying online
conversations to analyze technology’s cultural and discursive construction. My data
are the Twitter interface—particularly the platform’s reach and discourse conven-
tions—analyzed alongside selected online commentary discussing the Black Twitter
phenomenon.
Twitter’s discourse conventions, ubiquity, and social features encouraged in-
creased Black participation; Black Twitter is Twitter’s mediation of Black cultural
discourse, or ‘‘signifyin’’ (Gates, 1983). In particular, Black hashtag signifying re-
vealed alternate Twitter discourses to the mainstream and encourages a formulation
of Black Twitter as a ‘‘social public’’; a community constructed through their use
of social media by outsiders and insiders alike. After examining online responses to
Black Twitter, I close by discussing how racial and technocultural ideologies shape
perceptions of minority tech use to speculate on how to understand technology as
a cultural, rather than simply social, endeavor.
Research Background
boyd and Ellison (2007) define social network services (SNS) as web-based ser-
vices featuring profiles, lists of social connections, and the capability to view and
navigate profiles, connections, and user-generated content. Many SNS allow com-
ments. Twitter differs from other SNS in that the ‘‘comment,’’ or Tweet—not profiles
or networks—is the site’s focal point. Hoffman and Novak (2000) noted that a lack of
Black-oriented online content should be considered as a primary determinant of the
digital divide. As Byrne (2008) pointed out, BlackPlanet.com’s 16 million users serve
as evidence that sites promoting Black cultural interactivity can become enormously
popular. Accordingly, Black Twitter can be understood as a user-generated source of
culturally relevant online content, combining social network elements and broadcast
principles to share information.
Some research on Twitter takes an instrumental approach, which while capable
of perceiving and measuring social interaction quantitatively, assumes that Twitter
is culturally neutral. Although Twitter has been examined as a social microblog
(Java, Song, Finin, & Tseng, 2007), as a social network (Huberman, Romero, & Wu,
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 531
2008), and as a messaging application (Krishnamurthy, Gill, & Arlitt, 2008), there
are cultural affordances that are missed by each of these approaches.
Turning to communications research on Twitter, Marwick and boyd (2011) argue
that Twitter users imagine their audience, citing Scheidt’s (2006) statement that
online audiences exist only as written into the text through stylistic and linguistic
choices. However, in examining uses of Twitter’s ‘‘@’’ function, Honeycutt and
Herring (2009) found that it enabled direct conversations by reinforcing addressivity.
Tweets including the @ were ‘‘more likely to provide information for others and
more likely to exhort others to do something’’ (Honeycutt & Herring, 2009, p. 7).
Zhao and Rosson (2009) found that Twitter’s ‘‘follow’’ mechanism serves to curate
content, allowing users to build personal information environments centered around
topics and people of interest. Frequent, brief updates reduced the time necessary for
interaction with others, paradoxically allowing users to feel stronger connections to
their Twitter contacts. Twitter’s capability for real-time updates on current events or
social activities increased engagement as well.
To recap: Twitter’s temporal, electronic, and structural discourse mediation en-
courages weak tie (Granovetter, 1973) relationships between groups through infor-
mal communication practices. Analyzing Twitter as an information source captures
data about social use and information types, but elides cultural communicative
practices. Communication studies research offers greater insight into sociocultural
rationales for Twitter usage, but such research rarely examines the influence of race
on online discourse. The following examples and reactions to Black Twitter’s online
articulations of Black discursive culture serve the dual purpose of illustrating how
culture shapes online social interactions; they also show how Twitter’s interface and
discourses conventions helped to frame external perceptions of Black Twitter as a
social public.
Method
Critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) draws from technology studies,
communication studies, and critical race theory to understand how culture shapes
technologies. CTDA has been used to examine racial presentations in videogames
(Brock, 2011) and race and gender on blogs (Brock, Kvasny, & Hales, 2010). CTDA
works to subvert instrumental or deterministic accounts of interactions between
people and technology, by looking at the artifact’s interpellation (Althusser, 1971)
by its users. Like Herring’s (2001) Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis, CTDA is
a technique rather than a method; it draws energy from Nakamura’s (2006) argument
that Internet studies should match considerations of form, the user, and the interface
with an attention to the ideologies that underlie them.
Omi and Winant (1994) contend that race is a matter of social structure and cul-
tural representation, or racial formation. The Internet, as a social structure, represents
and maintains Western culture through its content and often embodies Western
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532 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
ideology through its design and practices. Pacey (1985) noted that popular concep-
tions of technology neglect beliefs about technologies and encourage perceptions of
technology as ‘‘value-neutral.’’ This perspective preserves existing social hierarchies
through technology dissemination, design, and use. Internet users, content providers,
and designers filter their Internet experiences through racial frames as they redis-
tribute online resources (e.g., attention/audience, cultural capital, political capital)
along racial lines.
Technoculture
Dinerstein (2006) defines American technoculture as a matrix of six qualities:
progress, religion, modernity, Whiteness, masculinity, and the future; extending
Carey’s (2009) argument that communication technologies transmit beliefs encoded
within information. Carey added that communication technologies extend the range
of reception of Western ideologies while diminishing the amount of participation
to discuss them critically (Carey, 2009, p. 136). Communication through these new
technologies is promoted as value-free information transfer or as an opportunity
to transmit culture to those less fortunate. Like other cultural objects, technology
influences and mediates racial and cultural identity. In the United States, technology
often reinforces long-standing American racial practices, and racialized discourses
about proficiency and information literacy play a part in the design, deployment,
and use of ICTs.
Racial Formation: Whiteness.
American identity is bounded and extended by negative stereotypes of Black
identity (Morrison, 1993). Giroux (1996) adds that, ‘‘whiteness represents itself as
a universal marker for being civilized and in doing so posits the Other within
the language of pathology, fear, madness, and degeneration’’ (p. 75). Dyer (1999)
contends that White identity is founded upon a paradox; that Whiteness entails
being a ‘‘sort of’’ race and the human race as well as both an individual subject
and a representation of the universal subject.
Racial Formation: Blackness.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1903), in his formulation of ‘‘double consciousness,’’ argued
that Blackness was a conflicted identity shaped by multiple discourses. For Du Bois,
personal Black identity is the intersection between Black communal solidarity and a
national White supremacist ideology. His formulation acknowledges the hegemony
of Whiteness without privileging it over the agency and spiritual energy found within
the Black community.
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 533
Signifyin’ as Black Discursive Identity.
This article’s analytical framework relies heavily upon signification’s discursive
constitution of Black identity (Gates, 1983; Mitchell-Kernan, [1972] 1999; Smither-
man, 1977). Signifyin’ draws upon Saussure’s ([1916], 1974, p. 67) sign/signifier/
signified, but purposefully reformulates that definition to draw attention to the
signifier as the playfully multi-valent interlocutor while the signified evolves from
form to object. Thus, signifyin’ becomes a practice where the interlocutor inven-
tively redefines an object using Black cultural commonplaces and philosophy. For
example, Gates (1983) defines signifyin’ as
A rhetorical practice unengaged in information giving. Signifying turns on the play
and chain of signifiers ::: the ‘‘signifier as such’’ in Julia Kristeva’s phrase, [is] a
‘‘presence that precedes the signification of object or emotion.’’ (pp. 688–9)
Smitherman (1977) adds call-and-response and tonal semantics to Gates’ def-
inition, highlighting audience participation and inflection. Both authors carefully
point out that limiting signifyin’ to insult or misdirection is reductive; it is the
articulation of a shared worldview, where recognition of the forms plus participation
in the wordplay signals membership in the Black community. Black discourse, from
this perspective, moves from bland information transfer to become a communal
commentary upon political and personal realities.
Finally, Hughes ([1971], 1993) argues that cultural traits are group attributes;
the group is not the synthesis of its traits. Black Twitter does not represent the
entirety of Black online presence, nor do the multitude of racist responses to the
phenomenon comprise the entirety of the racial matrix within which Black Twitter is
understood. Thus, I analyzed the interface’s mediation of Blackness and responses
to that mediation drawing from technocultural and racial ideologies, in keeping
with my goal of understanding how racial beliefs shape technology use.
Background: ‘‘Black’’ Twitter?!?
The initial coining of ‘‘Black Twitter’’ is commonly attributed to Choire Sicha’s
(2009) article, ‘‘What Were Black People Talking About on Twitter Last Night’’
(Manjoo, 2010). Dash (2008) however, presciently prefigured discussions of Twit-
ter’s functional remediation through Black discourse. In ‘‘Yo’ Mama’s So Fat,’’ Dash
reflected upon using Twitter for political ‘‘yo mama’’ jokes:
Playing the dozens is a uniquely and explicitly African American tradition : : : it
seems to me like the playfulness of the language and the absurdity of the medium
may have masked something timely and fitting. This obviously and intrinsically
black tradition has been adopted by a community like Twitter that is, frankly,
disproportionately not black. You could see it as the deracination of the tradition,
or even worse as a deliberate omission of cultural context in its appropriation. But
I actually see it as something positive.
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534 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
Dash’s speculation on Twitter’s demographics was unsourced, but later proven
correct. His statement about deracination through context, however, frames Twitter
as a ‘‘value-neutral’’ service; it becomes remarkable that Black discourse can be
employed effectively over a medium designed for a small, technologically proficient,
mostly White user base. Promoting the technosocial mediation of Black culture by
non-blacks as a ‘‘positive,’’ however, only accrues social and technical capital to
non-Blacks. When Black users employed Black discourse on Twitter, significantly
different opinions emerged.
Also predating Sicha’s article, Wilson (2009) identified the following elements of
Black discursive style on Twitter:
1) A culturally relevant hashtag1(cultural specificity)
2) Network participation (either a comment or a retweet) by tightly linked affili-
ates (homophily)
3) Viral spread to reach ‘‘trending topic’’ status (propagation).
Wilson didn’t specifically label these attributes as an instantiation of Black Twitter,
but his informal analysis of the cultural specificity, homophiletic, and memetic
features of Black provide the beginnings of a technocultural explanation of the
phenomenon.
Black Twitter’s public element revolves around the hashtag, a user-created meta-
discourse convention. The hashtag (‘‘#topic’’) was initially deployed to filter and
organize multiple Tweets on a particular topic (Messina, 2007). Initially intended
as a curational feature, hashtags quickly evolved into an expressive modifier to
contextualize the brusque, brief Tweet. The hashtag’s evolution, I argue, led to
the ‘‘discovery’’ of Black Twitter. Black Twitter hashtag domination of the Trending
Topics allowed outsiders to view Black discourse that was (and still is) unconcerned
with the mainstream gaze.
While hashtags predate trending topics, both played a role in exposing Black
Twitter to a mainstream unconcerned with its prior existence. Twitter’s enormous
volume of tweets effectively obscured the activities of groups of users; third-party
solutions provided some means to filter the stream but were of limited use to the
general user. Hashtags and trending topics filtered Twitter in a way that not only
identified topics of interest, but who was generating those topics.
To recap: racial and technocultural ideology play a part in understanding how
online discourse ‘‘works.’’ White participation in online activities is rarely un-
derstood as constitutive of White identity; instead we are trained to understand
their online activities as stuff ‘‘people’’ do. Black Twitter confounded this ingrained
understanding, even while using the same functions and apparatus, by making more
apparent through external observation and internal interaction how culture shapes
online discourses.
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 535
Twitter: Interface Analysis
Digital divide research rests upon deficit models of Internet usage (Selwyn, 2004),
arguing that those on the wrong side of the divide lack material access or technical
literacies. Mobile Internet access over the last decade has bridged the divide to
a certain extent; Fox, Zickuhr, and Smith (2009) found that 54% of Internet users
access through a mobile device and of those, 24% use Twitter or another service.
Horrigan (2009), reporting on wireless Internet use, wrote
Two measures of engagement with the wireless online—accessing the Internet on a
handheld on the typical day or ever—shows that African Americans are 70% more
likely to do this than White Americans.
Smith (2010) found that 64% of African-Americans are wireless Internet users, and
87% of Blacks and Hispanics own a cell phone, compared with 80% of Whites. He
updated Fox et al.’s findings to discover 95% of Twitter users own a mobile phone,
nearly half of mobile users access Twitter from their phone’s client, and that one in
ten Blacks access Twitter on a typical day, a rate nearly four times that of Whites
(Smith, 2011). Taken together, these findings suggest that while Twitter may map
discursively onto Black discourse, there are material and functional rationales for
Black Twitter usage as well.
Affordances: Minimalism and Malleability
I conducted a close reading of the affordances (Norman, 1999) and discourse
conventions of Twitter-as-a-service as part of my argument that these interface
elements contribute to the Black Twitter phenomenon. Norman defines affordances,
or more precisely ‘‘perceived affordances,’’ as design that relies upon ‘‘what actions
the user perceives to be possible,’’ rather than what is true. Twitter’s minimalism
and subsequent malleability, then, are perceived affordances that help to shape
cultural uses of the service. The cultural conventions—message length, hashtags,
and the trending topic—map onto performativity, signifyin’, and publicness in ways
that add an unexpected sociocultural dimension to the service.
The interfaces of most social network services (SNS) tend to follow a browser-
determined pattern: widgets, photo galleries, applications, and advertising. Twitter
stands apart from these browser-based SNS in its simplicity. The service’s message
format is a primary determinant of this affordance; Twitter was originally designed
as a Short Messaging Service (SMS) to connect people in small groups using text
messages. SMS messages are 160 characters long; Twitter messages are 140 char-
acters (including attribution),2allowing Tweets to traverse SMS networks without
truncation. Sagolla (2009) wrote that Jack Dorsey’s idea was to make it ‘‘so simple
that you don’t even think about what you’re doing, you just type something and
send it’’ (para. 3).
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536 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
‘‘Just type something and send it’’ as a design principle, demands that the client
become as transparent to the process as possible. The limitation of 140 characters
enabled Twitter to be used on millions of ‘‘feature phones’’ and smartphones—
regardless of operating system or manufacturer—as well as IM protocols. For those
using SMS, the Twitter shortcode is ‘‘40404,’’ and the interface is a series of threaded
messages organized by time received. One could also send messages using Twitter’s
Web site or 3rd party clients on Windows, Mac OS X, Unix, and Linux. For those
using the Web, Twitter’s interface3is a two-column page prominently featuring the
user’s Twitter feed; a floating header (for navigation and a user profile) is minimally
present at the top of the page. A plethora of third party clients and services are
available, thanks to an early release of its API and subsequent uptake by developers.
While these clients add features such as multiple logins and organizational features,
the focal point of all of these interfaces/clients is the message and the message
stream.
Unlike other SNS, Twitter is not restricted to certain types of Internet access, client
access, or protocol. For example, try Facebook on a mobile browser; Facebook
was designed for the web browser in 2004, prior to the introduction of the modern
smartphone. Facebook has long been criticized for its poor mobile offerings even as
burgeoning mobile Facebook access threatens to destabilize its advertising revenue.
Twitter’s minimalism allowed mobile access from the beginning, enabling Twitter
users to integrate Tweeting into their everyday communication patterns (similar to
the rise of SMS). According to tracking service TwitStat (‘‘Twitter Clients,’’ 2010),
nearly 300 different clients accessed the Twitter API to publish Tweets. Twitter’s
Web site was the primary source of access, but Foursquare, Google, Facebook, and
Flickr all allow their users to share information on Twitter.
The material affordances necessary to use Twitter—an Internet-connected com-
puter, screen, and input device—are thus reduced (or nerfed, in gaming terms) to
allow Twitter access to the widest possible number of ICT configurations by design.
Given the statistics I cited earlier on Black mobile Internet access and Twitter usage,
my analysis suggests that Twitter’s minimalist aesthetic and ease of material access
play a role in Black adoption of the service.
Twitter’s Cultural Conventions: Signifyin’ as
Performativity and Publicness
Twitter’s social mechanism—publish to a network of followers/read information
from a network of users one follows—provides a cultural context for decoding the
information received. Bollen, Goncalves, Ruan, and Mao (2011) found that Twitter
users either prefer the company of users with similar values or converge on their
Friends’ values. They speculate:
This may confirm the notion that distinct socio-cultural factors affect the expression
of emotion and mood on Twitter, and cause users to cluster according to their
degree of expressiveness. (p. 248)
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 537
In discursive identity construction, such as that found on Twitter, homophilic associ-
ations are reinforced by the use of cultural commonplaces. Thus, I argue that Black
Twitter discourse can be understood as signifyin’ (Gates, 1983), where the Black
Twitterer is the ‘‘signifier.’’ The hashtag serves triple duty as ‘‘signifier,’’ ‘‘sign,’’
and, ‘‘signified,’’ marking as it does the concept to be signified, the cultural context
within which the tweet should be understood, and the ‘‘call’’ awaiting a response.
Consider the following screen capture from an archived Twitter search for the
hashtag #NewTVOneShows.4Part of a larger thread to be discussed later, note
that the Twitter user signals their part in the performance by including the hashtag
and adding incisive commentary on it. The Tweet includes a reference to Black
food culture (pumpkin pie), Black identity norms (we don’t eat it), and cultural
commonplaces (the TV One5hashtag) in less than 140 characters, as part of a
quickly flowing conversation.
Tweet-as-signifyin’, then, can be understood as a discursive, public performance
of Black identity. In Saussurean terms, the signifier is ‘‘the psychological impression
of a sound’’ ([1916] 1974, p. 66). Gates (1983) defines signifyin’ in multiple di-
mensions: the person doing the signifyin’ performing a message that only represents
part of the intended communication. He adds, ‘‘one does not signify something;
one signifies in some way [emphasis original]’’ (1983, p. 689). Tweet-as-signifier
can be seen as representing communicative conventions: message (presence), social
affiliation (audience), and interest in the subject, tightly constrained by brevity and
concision.
Walcott (1972), writing about the influence of space and style on Black discourse,
notes that:
On the public level, the individual as stylist operates on a plane, or more accu-
rately, out of a sphere of interest usually defined from the white point of view as
entertainment [emphasis mine] and, more profitably, from the Black or theoretical
point as ritual drama or dialectical catharsis [emphasis mine]. (p. 9)
Walcott defines ritual as ‘‘a highly stylized structure perceived and laid out in space’’
(1972, p. 9). This cleanly fits Twitter’s communicative conventions: 140 characters
in which to proclaim something of interest, where interactants are addressed by
name and context delivered in shorthand (the hashtag). Marwick and boyd (2011)
argue that Twitter, like other social media, collapses context and enforces a univocal
identity presentation. I argue instead that Twitter’s strict 140-character limit encour-
ages discursive performativity and creativity (both hallmarks of signifyin’) within
boundaries of time and space. This resultant identity display differs from other SNS,
where social capital accrues from the public display of connections (boyd & Ellison,
2007), or carefully managed self-presentation through multimedia (Ellison, 2008).
Reframing Black Twitter as ritual drama, then, highlights the structure, engage-
ment, invention, and performances of these Twitter users employing cultural touch
points of humor, spectacle, or crisis to construct discursive racial identity. Perfor-
mativity is a crucial element of signifyin, and is immediately obvious in the case
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538 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
of Black Twitter. Walcott (1972) explains the influence of space and style on Black
discourse
One’s personal victory, then, is achieved through the fashioning of an individual
style that will enable one to operate in space : : : indeed to come to invigorate
the space in which one finds oneself with a sense of oneself, one’s vision, values,
limitations, resources, aims. (p. 9)
My final warrant for Tweet-as-signifier draws from Tal’s (1996) observation that
the construction of online identity is in many analogous to Du Bois’ ‘‘double
consciousness.’’ Our online persona is the uneasy reconciliation of offline mul-
tiplicity and online fixity. ‘‘Context collapse’’ (Marwick & boyd, 2011) is one way
to understand how the textual primacy of social media ‘‘fixes’’ identity. I argue
here that online fixity is the assumption that online visitors either occupy an online
‘‘normal’’ identity: White, male, middle class, and hetero; or they are so diverse that
their cultural origins cannot (or should not) be ascertained. Black Twitter’s use of
Twitter’s rigid format to articulate Black discursive styles and cultural iconography
subverts mainstream expectations of Twitter demographics, discourses, and utility.
These technocultural displays of Black identity would have gone unnoticed by the
wider world except for the visibility offered by another signifier, the hashtag.
Hashtags
The hashtag, a user-created metadiscourse convention (# Ckeyword), was coined
to coordinate Twitter conversations by providing topical coherence (Messina, 2007).
Although Messina recounts that he pitched the concept to Twitter, the company
chose to filter topics computationally, a process that became known as the ‘‘trending
topic’’ algorithm.
Trending topics are not the same as hashtags, although they both serve to organize
Twitter conversations. Hashtags are folksonomic (Mathes, 2004), and as Huang,
Thornton, and Efthimidias (2009) point out, are situated a priori for users to situate
their message within a wider real-time conversation, rather than a posteriori to
facilitate retrieval. Trending topics, on the other hand, are intended to capture topics
enjoying a surge in popularity (Gillespie, 2011). To do so, the algorithm looks at the
number of tweets on a common topic and the rate of propagation across multiple
clusters of Twitter users. By doing so, the trending topic tries to identify breaking
topics, rather than the enormous stream of tweets generated daily by the ‘‘Beliebers’’
or the ‘‘Barbs.’’6
Previously, I argued that hashtags serve as sign, signifier, and signified in Black
Twitter discourse. Mitchell-Kernan ([1972], 1999) similarly describes signifyin’
practice:
The hearer is thus constrained to attend to all potential—carrying symbolic systems
in speech events : : : the context embeddedness of meaning is attested to by both
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 539
our reliance on the given [emphasis mine] context and, most important, by our
inclination to construct additional context from our background knowledge of the
world. (p. 311)
The hashtag, originally intended to collate conversations around an external topic,
thus becomes a call for Black Twitter participants to recognize performance and
respond in kind. Without the context of the signifyin’ Twitterer and text, however,
it’s not always clear which hashtags are Black Twitter tags. For example, observe
What the Trend’s list of top hashtags of 2010 (Figure 2).
Walcott (1972) argues that command of the form is paramount for Black discourse:
Accustomed to, and perhaps most at home participating in ritual, the stylist is a
performer, a man who moves in space, who attracts attention and employs it in
defining himself [emphasis mine]. (p. 9)
The signifyin’ hashtag invites an audience, even more so than the publication of
a Tweet to one’s followers, by setting the parameters of the discourse to follow.
It’s also a signal that the Twitterer is part of a larger community and displays her
knowledge of the practice, the discourse, and the group’s worldview. Black Twitter
tags can be encoded in African American Vernacular English, but do not have to
be: the user’s identity, her followers (and followed), and the command of the form
all play a role.
Smitherman (1977) defines ‘‘call and response’’ as a practice where the speaker
either requests a specific response from the audience or elicits extemporaneous
audience responses by appeals to cultural commonplaces. Call and response inter-
actions build consensus either by completion of the original statement or through
affirmation of the speaker’s intent.
In Figure 3,7observe how Black Twitter’s use of hashtags employs call and
response: FreedomReeves begins the call with the hashtag #NewTVOneShows,8and
in the above screen capture RenishaRenewed acknowledges the call and expands
upon it. The hashtag refers to the Black-owned cable channel, TV One; these
Twitterers are humorously proposing culturally relevant shows for the fledgling
network. Note that FreedomReeves does not address her tweet to TV One’s Twitter
account (@tvonetv). Rather, TV One is the ‘‘sign’’ upon which she is signifyin’.
Hashtags, for Black Twitter, also enable the signifyin’ practice of tonal semantics
or ‘‘voice rhythm and vocal inflection to convey meaning in Black communication’’
(Smitherman, 1977, p. 134). Banks (2004), writing about tonal semantics on Black-
Planet.com chat discourse, notes that typographic features such as parentheses and
punctuation were used to denote affection, dislike, or respect between members.
Hashtags serve a similar function for Black Twitter; instead of serving as a relational
signal between individuals, they signal a shift from whatever else is going on to
a critical yet playful discourse style. They differentiate individual tweets as part
of communal word play and identity construction, rather than insult or banality.
Hashtags enable Twitter to mediate communal identities in near-real time; allowing
participants to act individually yet en masse while still being heard.
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540 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
Figure 2
htttp://whatthetrend.com 2010 Top Twitter Trends
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 541
Figure 3
Black Twitter Discourse Example
Twitter’s publication mechanism makes it difficult to keep track of conversations:
all public Tweets are posted to @public timeline (once featured on the home page,
but no longer) and simultaneously to a user’s followers. The public timeline is
near incomprehensible thanks to volume and lack of context, and conversations
between subscribers draw context from their shared interests. Trending topics, then,
attempt to highlight the conversational nature of the service by indicating topics of
interest. Where hashtags indicate group-level discourse, their use by Black Twitter
often brings them to the attention of the trending topic algorithm, which is how the
mainstream became aware of the phenomenon.
Black Twitter’s visibility via the trending topic algorithm—and the resultant oth-
ering of those conversations—led to Black Twitter’s framing as an intervention on
‘‘White public space’’ (Hill, 1995). Hill defines White public space as ‘‘a morally
significant set of contexts in which Whites are invisibly normal, and in which
racialized populations are visibly marginal’’ (p. 62). This public space is constructed
by intense monitoring of non-White speakers, along with the invisibility of almost
identical signs in White discourse. In the previous sections I examined how Twitter’s
design principles indirectly encouraged Black mobile participation in the service,
as well as how tweets and hashtags (artifacts) can mediate Black cultural discourse
(practice). The following section examines the racial and technocultural beliefs
about Black Twitter, expressed in selected online discourses.
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542 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
Discourse Analysis: Reactions to Black Twitter
I examined three Web sites discussing Black Twitter: a White-authored personal
blog, a technology column penned by a non-White journalist, and the personal
blog of a Black journalist. These sites are not definitive examples of their respective
ethnic groups; Omi and Winant’s (1984) racial formation theory, however, argues
that individual acts of racial representation draw from social structure and Hughes
([1971], 1993) defines ethnic identity as practices and beliefs that the in-group and
the out-group agree can be attributed to the in-group. Therefore, while these Web
sites are not wholly representative, the authors recognize Black Twitter based upon
their relationship to Black identity and online culture.
White Perspective/Too Much Nick
One of the original contributors to the ‘‘Blacks on Twitter’’ conversation was
Nick Douglas, on his personal blog ‘‘Too Much Nick.’’9In ‘‘Micah’s ‘Black people
on Twitter’ theory’’ (Douglas, 2009), Douglas mentioned a friend’s comment on
non-geek Twitter activity:
These people don’t have real [emphasis mine] Twitter friends. So they all respond
to trending topics. And that’s the game, that’s how they use Twitter.
Douglas’ post implies that Twitter is for geeks, defined as ‘‘white guys with collars
and spelling.’’ In contrast, non-geeky people ‘‘use text-speak’’ and are ‘‘minorities,
women, and teens.’’
Rawls (2000), writing about White/Black interactions, notes:
While Black and White appear to occupy the same world geographically, they
rarely occupy the same interactional space : : : even when they do more often
jointly occupy interactional space : : : the display of moral behavior by members of
one group may well look like deviant behavior to members of the other. [emphasis
mine] (p. 247)
For Douglas, only certain folk Tweet correctly: standard English-speaking, White
professional, male technologists, or ‘‘geeks.’’ From this racial and technocultural
context, Twitter becomes an informational space and social network for White tech
elites.
Mainstream Perspective/Slate.com
Manjoo (2010) triggered the ‘‘tipping point’’ for Black Twitter’s perception by
the wider world. Although writers in other online venues had noted Black trending
topics, Manjoo’s (2010) article, ‘‘How Black People Use Twitter’’ definitively pre-
sented itself as ‘‘The latest research on race and microblogging.’’ Manjoo’s article
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 543
is notable for presenting a technocultural (rather than simply ethnocentric) rationale
for Black Twitter usage.
Manjoo suggested that Black Twitter networks tended to be densely homophilic
and more reciprocal than other nodes. Reciprocity, on Twitter, measures the ratio
of followers to followed; most Twitter users tend to have fewer followers and follow
people that don’t reciprocate. Manjoo found that most Black Twitter participants had
a reciprocity ratio of nearly 1:1, suggesting that Blacks used Twitter as a ‘‘public
instant messenger’’ to connect with friends.
Manjoo used nuanced racial rationales to explain Black Twitter as well. Noting
a relationship between ‘‘the Dozens’’ (signifyin’) and Black Twitter discourse, he
wrote:
The Dozens theory is compelling but not airtight : : : a lot of these tags don’t really
fit the format of the Dozens—they don’t feature people one-upping one another
with witty insults. Instead, the ones that seem to hit big are those that comment on
race, love, sex, and stereotypes about black culture : : : the bigger reason why the
Dozens theory isn’t a silver bullet is that : : : people of all races insult one another
online in general, and on Twitter specifically. We don’t usually see those trends hit
the top spot.
The reasoning here is sound; Manjoo correctly identifies Black Twitter discourse
as a cultural perspective. Moreover, he supports his own argument on homophily
by noting that the density of Black Twitter networks leads to their domination of
trending topics, not their tendency to insult one another. Manjoo closes on another
positive note, claiming that Black Twitter was the actions of a specific set of highly
engaged Twitter users, rather than typical of all Blacks on Twitter.
Despite Manjoo’s balanced racial and technocultural approach, the column in-
troduced itself as an authority on racial online activity, bolstered by its publication
in a mainstream news site and subsequent uptake. Many in the Black blogosphere
were incensed by Manjoo’s urban/male characterization of Black Twitter, including
a writer on the next Web site, postbourgie.com
Black Perspective/Postbourgie
Shani Hilton (2010), writing as shani-o, responded to Manjoo’s article on post-
bourgie.com. Her post, ‘‘You can tweet like this or you can tweet like that or you can
tweet like us,’’ takes an analytical racial approach to Black Twitter. Her response
criticizes Manjoo’s authoritative stance on Black Twitter activity, suggesting that he
served as a tour guide for ‘‘befuddled and bemused Whites’’ because ‘‘the ways of
Black folk are so mysterious.’’
Hilton (2010) acknowledged using Twitter and that Black Twitter hashtags, ‘‘some
very tempting to join in on,’’ had crept into her timeline. She defines Black Twitter
discourse:
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544 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
Black people on Twitter, just as they do in real life, maintain tight-knit communities
where they trade jokes, bicker, and play with each other. The same could be said
about any other community using the site.
She adds a technocultural analysis of Black online access:
To address the question about the ‘‘dominance’’ of black Twitterers, I believe
the answer lies somewhere in this combination of pretty mundane facts: Poor
and working class people are more likely to access the Internet through mobile
devices: : : : Young black people on Twitter are right on trend. That is, when a large
percentage of a racial group is young and doesn’t have a lot of money, they’re going
to dominate a free service that ties in perfectly with their most common mode of
communication.
Hilton accepts Black Twitter as normal, rather than a game; perhaps because of her
own participation. Similarly, she marks their discourse as common to all Twitter
users. To close her post, she asks for mainstream understanding of Black heterogene-
ity, online and offline, reinforcing Manjoo’s point that Black Twitter is a subgroup
of all Black Twitter users, rather than the entirety.
Rawls (2000), writing on Black discursive identity, notes:
While Whites : : : are accountable to only one community and one set of values,
there are two separate peoples to whom the African American self is accountable.
If actions fulfill the ideals of the one group, without fulfilling the ideals of the other
at the same time, this is a problem that ‘‘belongs’’ to the African American self, but
not to the White self. (p. 245)
This quote clearly supports Hilton’s analysis. She claims and acknowledges the
actions of poor young Blacks, marking their activity as American cultural normal and
technocultural normal. Her articulation of Black technological prowess—reading
Black Twitterers as agentive and tech literate—by using statistical finds to bolster
her belief counters the moral and functional racial technology narrative presented
by Douglas. Hilton’s analysis also adds nuance to Manjoo’s article, by presenting
activities from an emic perspective.
Discussion: Interfaces, Practices, and Beliefs
I examined Twitter’s interface and features to understand how Twitter’s technol-
ogy mediated Black culture while scrutinizing online discourses about Black Twitter
to understand how culture frames technology practice. I found that a tweet’s content
coupled with a topical hashtag, when leavened with cultural commonplaces, could
enrich communal bonds between networked Twitter users; this happens regardless
of cultural affiliation. Black Twitter exemplifies this phenomenon, but racial and
technocultural ideologies brought it attention thanks to pejorative perceptions of
Black technology use.
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Brock/TWITTER AS A CULTURAL CONVERSATION 545
Black discursive culture—specifically signifyin’s focus on invention, delivery,
ritual, and audience participation—maps well onto Twitter’s focus on rapid dis-
cussion between groups of connected users. Twitter’s ubiquity and ambiguity—
mdesign decisions made to encourage adoption of the service—enabled material
access to the service with little loss of functionality; an important point to realize
when considering that Blacks access the Internet (and Twitter) primarily through
mobile devices. Black Twitter illuminates Twitter’s role as a cultural communica-
tion medium, transcending the size limitations and conversational incoherence of
chat rooms, while allowing users to participate in open-ended community building
discourses in near real-time.
Equally illuminating is the role that technocultural and racial ideologies played
in shaping reactions to Black Twitter. While my discourse analysis was performed
on a very small scale, I conducted it thusly to triangulate beliefs about race and
technology use framed by Black Twitter perceptions. Where Whiteness and tech
expertise were ascendant, Black Twitter was viewed as a game and a waste of
resources. Where Blackness and tech expertise was ascendant, Black Twitter was
understood as the mediated articulations of a Black subculture.
Conclusions
Black Twitter came to online prominence through creative use of Twitter’s hashtag
function and subsequent domination of Twitter’s ‘‘trending topics.’’ I tread carefully
here; Black folk have been Twitter users from ‘‘jump.’’ Drawing from Hughes’
([1971], 1993) definition of ethnic groups, however, I argue that Black Twitter
coalesced through the recognition of the unique practices of the group by in-
group and out-group observers alike. To this I add Hughes’ observation that cultural
behaviors are attributes of an ethnic group; the group is not defined by those
attributes. Thus, ‘‘Black Twitter’’ is best understood as a ‘‘public group of specific
Twitter users’’ rather than a ‘‘Black online public.’’
That being said, Black Twitter can be understood as a ‘‘public’’; albeit a terribly
understudied one. Like other Black online activities, Black Twitter would have been
considered ‘‘niche’’ without the intervention of the hashtag/trending topic. These
two features brought the activities of tech literate Blacks to mainstream attention,
contravening popular conceptions of Black capitulation to the digital divide. Hilton’s
recognition and Douglas’ disparagement highlight the formation of the group, while
Manjoo’s column signaled Black Twitter’s ‘‘arrival.’’
Typically, social networks gain popularity and public notice as users encourage
their networks to adopt them. Viral spread across multiple online venues (e.g.,
email, IM, YouTube) then leads to the recognition of ‘‘social public’’ by academics,
pundits, and the mainstream. Black Twitter did neither of those things: Black Twitter
discourse works best on Twitter, although similar cultural commonplaces are em-
ployed wherever Blacks congregate. Nor is it clear how many Black Twitter users
engage in Black Twitter discourse practices. In fact, as more Blacks adopt Twitter
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546 Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media/December 2012
and their hashtags no longer dominate trending topics, the ‘‘publicness’’ of Black
Twitter will return to the audience most involved: Black folk.
This research was simultaneously made easier and more difficult by race, as
this special issue’s focus on ‘‘social publics’’ encourages analyses of easily defined
online communities. If my intent were to mark White discursive styles and practices
based upon Twitter usage as a ‘‘social public,’’ I would have had to disambiguate
based upon class, sexuality, or other demographics. That Black Twitter is often
portrayed as representative of the entire Black community despite the heterogeneity
of Black culture speaks to the power of American racial ideology’s framing of Black
identity as monoculture. I deliberately omitted mention of the more egregious racist
responses to Black Twitter, intent on presenting Black Twitter as the technological
mediation of a specific cultural discourse rather than as the product of fevered online
fantasies of degenerative Black online behavior. Although these fantasies are much
more vivid and easily disparaged, focusing upon them moves the gaze to White
framings of Black activity, rather than Black Twitter’s creativity and tech literacy.
Examining egregious online racism while ignoring more subtle, structural forms
of online discrimination is problematic; equally as problematic is social science
and communication research that attempts to preserve a color-blind perspective on
online endeavors by normalizing Whiteness and othering everyone else. It is my
hope that this article sparks a conversation about both practices.
Notes
1A ‘‘hashtag’’ is a user-generated Twitter discourse convention intended to facilitate the
curation of tweets about a particular topic using Twitter’s limited search capabilities.
2Twitter messages can be addressed to other users by including ‘‘@username.’’
3As of December 30, 2011. Twitter frequently changes the Web interface to implement
new service features.
4Archive available from: http://archivist.visitmix.com/DocDre/2
5TV One is a Black-owned cable channel providing content specifically for Black families.
6Twitter followers of Justin Bieber (22 million) and Nicki Minaj (12 million), respectively.
7Retrieved from http://archivist.visitmix.com/DocDre/2
8The majority #NewTVOneShows hashtagged conversation took place over approximately
3 hours; it never reached ‘‘trending topic’’ status.
9http://toomucnick.com
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Preprint
We report on the outcome of an audit of Twitter's Home Timeline ranking system. The goal of the audit was to determine if authors from some racial groups experience systematically higher impression counts for their Tweets than others. A central obstacle for any such audit is that Twitter does not ordinarily collect or associate racial information with its users, thus prohibiting an analysis at the level of individual authors. Working around this obstacle, we take US counties as our unit of analysis. We associate each user in the United States on the Twitter platform to a county based on available location data. The US Census Bureau provides information about the racial decomposition of the population in each county. The question we investigate then is if the racial decomposition of a county is associated with the visibility of Tweets originating from within the county. Focusing on two racial groups, the Black or African American population and the White population as defined by the US Census Bureau, we evaluate two statistical measures of bias. Our investigation represents the first large-scale algorithmic audit into racial bias on the Twitter platform. Additionally, it illustrates the challenges of measuring racial bias in online platforms without having such information on the users.
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... Black social media use is quite complex and is frequently invested in social justice. For instance, scholars of Black Twitter like AndreBrock (2012) and Sarah Florini(2014)have borrowed from the work of Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1983) 1 on signifyin' and applied it to the study of Black not have a single leader or group of leaders. Instead, BLM activists share a political agenda and philosophical movement, operating in the heritage of Black intellectuals like Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, W. E. B. DuBois, and James Baldwin, that brings attention to the intersectional struggles of racial injustice. ...
... According to deOliviera et al. (2016), an individual's identity significantly predicted Facebook usage among Brazilian users. According to Brock (2012), black people use Twitter to express their "Black identity." U&G theory proposes that social and psychological factors will motivate social media use (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). ...
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Omi and Winant examine the creation and negotiation of race's role in identify construction, contestation, and deconstruction. Since no biological basis exists for the signification of racial differences, the authors discuss racial hierarchies in terms of a "racial formation," which is a process by which racial categories are created, accepted, altered, or destroyed. This theory assumes that society contains various racial projects to which all people are subjected. The role that race plays in social stratification secures its place as a political phenomenon in the United States. This stratification is tantamount to what Omi and Winant call "racial dictatorship," which has three effects. First, the identity "American" is conflated with the racial identity "white." Second, the "color line" becomes a fundamental division in American society. Finally, oppositional racial consciousness became consolidated in opposition to racial dictatorship.
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Althusser extends Marx's notion of reproduction of the means of production beyond the production system to the Ideological State Apparatues and the Repressive State Apparatuses. The Ideologocial State Apparatuses, especially education, ensure that we are reproduced as subjects of the ruling ideology. "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence...Ideology has a material existence...always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices" (Althusser developing the notion of ideology)
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communication;interdisciplinary study;discourse analysis;social practice;computer networks