Ever since Twitter was introduced in 2006, the social media platform has been aggressively transforming from a small informal social network into a vast online global community which has both political and cultural influences. It’s given a voice to many marginalized groups, and has helped shed light on the importance of cultural issues to different communities worldwide.
The most popular of these communities being “Black Twitter”, which is an online group of users who combine cultural knowledge and humour to provide in-depth commentary on black global socio-political issues.
What exactly is Black Twitter? It has been defined as “a cultural identity on the Twitter social network focused on issues of interest to the black community”. This community has created a free space for a wide discourse around problems facing people who go through the “black experience”. Its growth began when smartphones were introduced- which gave poor minorities and disadvantaged people more accesses to the Internet.
Danya Chatman, a PhD student at the University of Southern California who studies black culture online, said in an article by The Washington Post in October 2015, “a lot of the conversations about the digital divide were about who could afford internet at home. But instead people were getting online using their phones. Even if you couldn’t afford a data plan, you could hop on the WiFi network at a McDonalds or a Starbucks and be connected”. The more easy Internet access led to more people in the black community discussing all of their day-to-day experiences openly.
“History teaches us that even as new technologies create growth and new opportunity, they can heighten economic inequalities and sharpen social divisions,” former US president Bill Clinton once said in a speech at HYPERLINK “https://www.google.co.bw/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi92qbZsvfUAhXCBsAKHQgjCX0QFggnMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fweb.mit.edu%2F&usg=AFQjCNFGEpEnwRBMPQvRT7ueDZqPQAU23g” Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he urged students to use the Internet to fight for social change.
In terms of fighting for social change, Black Twitter has been an irrefutable force. There are many examples of when a simple hashtag on Twitter led to actual influence on the real world.
In 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter became one of the most tweeted hashtags of the year. It was a massive response to the infamous acquittal of the police officer George Zimmerman in his trial after the shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. The hashtag was not only covered by international media organisations, but also led to the foundation of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which is self-described as “an international activist movement that campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people”. Since its foundation, it has grown into an active organization which holds regular protests and demonstrations.
#JurorB-37 was another famous hashtag relating to Zimmerman’s trial which led to social change. After the trial, it was announced that one of the jurors would be releasing a book about what she experienced watching the trial. Black Twitter was immediately outraged, angered that the juror would be profiting from the late Trayvon Martin’s death. The online response led to an immediate termination of the juror’s book deal.
In South Africa, there was another case of Black Twitter having a quick reaction to controversy. In 2012, Helen Zille (former leader of political party DA) got into a heated argument with South African singer Simphiwe Dana, where she ended up tweeting her saying: “You’re a highly respected black professional. Don’t try to be a professional black. It demeans you.” Black Twitter caught onto it immediately, put Zille in the spotlight and made her position as DA leader questionable.
Another similar occasion happened when a member of American company IAC, Justine Sacco, tweeted out “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” right before her flight to Cape Town, December 20th 2013. The tweet trended worldwide, with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, leading to her being immediately fired from IAC.
Black Twitter has also done so much more than influencing politics. It has also made the discussion of black issues more public and mainstream. These discussions that only happened in “black spaces” (e.g black churches, colleges, barbershops) in the past are now available and easily accessible to white people and people from other communities (even if they’re not apart of the discussions, they’re still able to witness them). These discussions are now becoming more normalised.
Unathi Kondile, a journalism lecturer at the University of Cape Town: “Twitter is a free online platform where black voices can assert themselves and their views without editors and publishers deciding if their views matter.”
Black Twitter is also important in connecting black communities around the world. A black person in South Africa could relate to the struggles of a black person in the US, and feel less alone- knowing that their issues and concerns are valid.