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.