This story was originally published by UVA Today.
By Whitelaw Reid
Meredith Clark was scrolling through her Twitter feed recently when she came across a tweet that made her think back to her childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and smile.
The tweet linked to a video of an African-American woman waving her hands through a running faucet with the caption, “This makes the water heat up faster.”
In that instant, Clark, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, felt connected to a group of African-American Twitter users – none of whom she knew personally – who were in the midst of a discussion about the video.
“I had seen my mother do that a million times,” Clark said, “and I’ve done it myself.”
Clark said this type of “cultural resonance” is at the heart of “Black Twitter,” a course she has taught for the last three semesters.
UVA Today caught up with Clark, whose interest in the subject of African-American social media use has led to a $1.2 million research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Q. “Black Twitter” is something referred to a lot, but I think there are some people who aren’t 100 percent sure what it really means. Can you define it?
A. I define “Black Twitter” as a network of culturally connected communicators using the platform to draw attention to issues of concern to black communities. It’s the culture that we grew up with. It’s the culture that we experienced in our lives and school, in the workplace, with entertainment – and you see conversations coalesce around specific cultural moments.
I always explain to people that Black Twitter doesn’t have a gateway, a secret knock. It’s not a separate platform. It’s all in the way that people use the platform to draw attention to issues of concern to black communities.
Q. Did somebody coin the term “Black Twitter”? And when did it start?
A. There are a couple of points of departure for that. The one I take is in 2010: Farhad Manjoo, who was writing for Slate at the time, wrote this article called, “How Black People Use Twitter,” and the response to it on Twitter was fierce and people truncated the headline to “Black Twitter.” That’s where I take it from.
Q. Do you have to be black to be part of Black Twitter? It seems like there would be some tricky elements in play there.
A. Absolutely. How do you decide who belongs to an online community that is bounded by race and cultural experience? Like who’s in and who’s out? That’s not necessarily for the entire community to decide, nor is the entire community that cohesive to be able to say, with a singular voice, “you’re in” or “you’re out.”
I would say the sole exception to that is with [former civil rights activist] Rachel Dolezal. I think that’s where you saw Black Twitter draw a line. They were like, “Uh, no. You are definitely outside of it.” [Note: Dolezal was president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP until her parents revealed that Dolezal was a white woman passing as black.]
But it all depends. There are plenty of white folks that I know who tweet along with Black Twitter, who I think could be considered part of the community. But it’s about knowing what the focus of the community conversations are and knowing how and where to position yourself within those conversations. It’s just realizing that blackness is at the center of what’s happening with these interactions and being OK with that. Being more of an observer at times, rather than somebody who’s trying to control the conversation if you’re not black, is really important.
Q. What’s the easiest way for people to see what’s going on with Black Twitter?
A. Sometimes the community is visible through hashtag and trending topics, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes there are just conversations going on that don’t bubble up to the surface where an algorithm can pick up on it.
Q. Are there prominent African-Americans within Black Twitter to follow?
A. People like Jamilah Lemieux, who was an editor at Ebony.com and worked as communications director for Cynthia Nixon when she was running for governor. People like Vann Newkirk, who is a writer at The Atlantic. People like Genie Lauren, who created a petition to get a book deal from one of the jurors from the George Zimmerman trial dropped. She was just an everyday person doing her thing. Mikki Kendall created the hashtag “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen” and that thrust her into the limelight. Jamie Nesbitt Golden came up with “#FastTailGirls” which was a hashtag to talk about the hypersexualization of black girls. She’s also done a lot of work around drawing attention to grievances that black women have with [singer] R. Kelly.
Q. Are you pretty active on Twitter?
A. Yes. I’m on Twitter all the time [smiling]. I tell my students, “If you want an instant answer from me, don’t email me, tweet me.
Q. What’s an example of something that happens on Black Twitter that just kind of explodes and turns into a foxhole you can’t escape?
A. Jill Scott had a fairly explicit concert performance. Somebody took a snippet of that performance and posted it online late one night. The next day Jill Scott was trending. I like Jill Scott. I think she’s a great singer and I just wanted to know what’s going on. I see the trend, have to click on it and just have to find out what happened. Then you’re reading people’s responses and people have created memes and there are a bunch of jokes. Time gone. (Snapping her fingers).
Q. What’s the focus of your upcoming book on Black Twitter?
A. I’m really interested in positioning Black Twitter as a source of digital counter-narrative for the way that black life in the United States is depicted in mainstream media. There have been numerous studies about problematic framing of black people as being deviant, as being, in some ways, subjugated to dominant culture. Aside from creating outlets for black voices – like Ebony, Essence, the weekly black newspapers – there wasn’t a way for people to contest the narrative in real time.
And that’s what Twitter has allowed so many black communicators to do. To coalesce around an issue, to speak back to depictions and to really offer an alternative way of seeing black lived experiences.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant you recently received?
A. This is the second iteration of the project “Documenting The Now.” The project is designed to help communities create social media archives around issues of social justice. When you work with social media data like I do, it’s very ephemeral, it’s very expensive. You often don’t know what you want or need until the moment is long past. One of the things we aim to do is to help communities think about how they want to capture that information and how they want to use it.
Q. What excites you most about the project?
A. Creativity and connection with communities. Anytime that you’re able to make something out of the digital world – not just analyzing social media messages, but putting them back together to tell a cohesive story – that really excites me.
And watching students take what they learn in class and then working with members of whatever community they’re interested in is really exciting because you just never know what students are going to come up with. They come up with some of the coolest stuff.