It was something in the title that first struck me, the blatant, definitive, all-inclusive sound of “black people” in the title of SLATE magazine’s “How Black People Use Twitter.” Apparently it was time, the editors decided, not only to focus SLATE’s penetrating eye on the specific ways in which African Americans—we “black people”—utilize the popular social networking site which allows individuals to communicate in 140-character chunks of verbiage, but also how we bend the site to our own (apparently) racialized ways. The first time I read the article I was a bit bemused by it; my first thought was, well, should anyone be surprised that black folks happen upon some existing entity and re-create it to fit their own style? Of course not, American history is rife with musical, sartorial, and cultural shifts caused by the mere re-arrangement of codes that black folks decided to use to make things sound, look, and just work better for themselves—and eventually anyone else who decided to come to the party (sometimes stealing it in the process, but cultural theft is a blog post for another day). To be real, the so-called melting pot that is American (popular) culture seems as if its been eternally stirred by the fierce and hard-fought attitudes and moods of black folks who like for things to be what my grandmother used to call “just-so.”
But then I read the article a second time and I felt almost as if I was reading some updated version of 19th century racial anthropology or some foray into the heart of darkness, where the cultural ways of black folks get investigated with the usual mixture of shock and surprise and awe, a reversion back to that age-old regard for black folks as merely grouped-together objects with (of?) style, instead of actual individual subjects with points of view. Based upon the oh-so-interesting premise that even though black folks on Twitter use hashtags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble in an insular and provocative—and (apparently) black—way, these Tweets trend extraordinarily high in the Twitterverse and have taken to being referred to as “blacktags.” According to the piece’s author Farhad Manjoo, “The prevalence of these tags has long puzzled nonblack observers and sparked lots of sometimes uncomfortable questions about ‘how black people use Twitter.’” “What,” he asks, “explains the rise of tags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble?” (and, later, #ghettobabynames). “What,” he asks, “is it about the way black people use Twitter that makes their conversations so popular?” “Black people—specifically, young black people,” he decides, “do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service. They form tighter clusters on the network—they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies—posts directed at other users. It’s this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people—and in particular, black teenagers—the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.” And therein lies my real problem with this article.
First, must this kind of question even be asked? It’s sad that the writer doesn’t seem to comprehend the historic tendencies toward trying to “understand” black people and their behaviors. Nor does he seem to understand his article’s place in the larger context of the racialized responses to both the supposed lack of literacy among black folks and the surprise that’s often noted of black folks’ sophisticated use of language—whether written or orally performed—dating from, say, Phillis Wheatley right up to some of the awe and wonder that greeted the early emcees of rap as it exploded out of the hood. To hopefully make some larger cultural point about potential “segregation” on the Web, the writer interviews a Carnegie Mellon PhD who tells him that black folks “are using Twitter as a social tool…They’re using Twitter like a public instant messenger,” and adds that they’re “using the service to talk to one another rather than broadcast a message to the world.” You get the feeling that as “awesome” as he claims to finds black behavior on Twitter (and probably on basketball courts and dance floors, too) the author of this piece is actually a little surprised to even find a number of African Americans operating in this space (according to his research, a survey found that nearly one-quarter of people on Twitter are African-American; noting that this was “approximately double the percentage of African-Americans in the current U.S. population.”) And there’s a tonal quality to the piece that seems perturbed that when African Americans do create community on Twitter, it’s not to cross-over in a nice liberal way that makes everyone comfortable, but instead to commune with each other, satisfied that the space belongs to them as much as anyone else. It’s the black table at the predominantly white college all over again, and all the silly questions that arise from that: Why do blacks separate (segregate?) themselves? Why aren’t we part of their world? What secret language must they be speaking to each other? And, yes, how cool is it? It’s not self-segregation: Sometimes you just wanna speak to people who you think speak your language, not to the ones who act surprised when you speak, what they really think of as their language, well.
But I do know this: I think hashtags are fun. Nothing made Tweeting more fun a month or so ago, when I hashtagged #nowImgonnagogetmesomeKoolAid (after an episode of The Boondocks used that line to such hilarious effect) and got tweets back from friends using it as well. What I didn’t know was that I was doing something so African-American that someone would write an article about it and act like it was the newest thing since the call-and-response we’ve heard on vinyl since voices started getting recorded. I also know this: if you’re going to write about blackness and “black people,” at least understand the long legacy of reportage and study and field-work that’s gone into making your work possible. Which is something I learned from a white editor—not in the nicest way—back when I was starting out as a journalist.
I remember an editor once wouldn’t allow me to interview a major rock star or review the new release of a major rock act, because according to him one had to be part of a larger conversation about rock (read: white) music to effectively cover the music. I was expected to write just about rap and r&b. Of course he assumed that I didn’t really listen to (or love or critique or criticize) rock music in the way he assumed I only listened to rap. And it wasn’t, even, that I had that much of a problem being “relegated” to a rap journalistic beat. It was music and culture I knew well, that spoke to an experience that needed coverage, but it was also better that it be me, in my opinion, rather than just any number of white writers who were allowed to write about rap music “because they liked it” and not because they had anything new or experiential or interesting to add to that reputed “larger conversation.” (And of course it was pretty probable that my editor assumed I paid no attention to these writers or their work.) This SLATE article reminded me of those days, because you can only write a ridiculous essay like this without realizing there’s a larger conversation to be had about race (and class) and the uses of culture, a conversation that’s already going on. Probably at that “black table” where the seriously interested non-black people arrive without reducing black folks to a monolithic whole suitable enough to be studied like mice in a laboratory maze.