How tweeting while black became controversial

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Black culture is interesting. Not only to those who identify themselves as black but those who are on the outside looking in. Consider the fact that elements of black culture not only have been successfully integrated into other cultures seamlessly with nary an influence of an advertising campaign or a public relations executive. Case-in-point: whether you agree with the merit of Antoine Dodson’s popularity as evidence of coonery or 15 minutes of fame, the refrain of “Hide yo kids, Hide yo wife” is to 2010 what “Tardy For The Party” was for 2009 or “Yes We Can” was to 2008.

That being said, it was with much interest that I and likely several of you viewed Slate’s article “How black people use Twitter” last week. Upon first read, I have to admit that I really wasn’t offended by anything that the author Farhad Manjoo had written. After being a writer on the Internets for the past three years, I had long accepted that most people who comment on facets of blackness are often not black themselves. It was for this reason that I didn’t even flinch when Manjoo described himself as a “non-white person” in what can only be described as an attempt to identify with African-Americans yet be an exception towards the audience of those non-black persons for whom “Late Night Black Twitter” is an obsession.

Did I pause when he described Black Twitters’ prevalent use of “blacktags” instead of hashtags? A bit. Did I cringe when I saw Slate’s depiction of “Black Twitter,” a brown bird in a nondescript baseball cap in what I can only assume was this bird’s frantic texting to the rest of his tweeps on Twitter late at night? Not really. Again, I’m used to this kind of slap-in-the-face depiction of black people. Did it interfere with my wanting to finish the article? No.

What occurred the next day, however, was something that only the viral gods of the internet could have only dreamed of. Initiated by Inny Vinny on her fashion and culture-oriented website, she offered several depictions of the offensive brown Twitter bird to those who might want to change their Twitter avatars to show awareness of Manjoo’s paltry, insufficient claim that black folks who use Twitter are all the of the same mind, individual preferences be damned.

The hashtag took off like wildfire prompting several people such as myself to festoon our Twitter profile pics with little brown Twitter birds dressed as Kanye West, Rick James, and my personal favorite, a brown bird with a baseball cap sitting on 22” rims. If nothing, we black people are creative, right? Unsurprisingly, the next day after the Slate article published, #browntwitterbird as a hashtag had reached such a fever pitch—nearly 2,400 mentions in one day—that the “awesome” Black People Twitter that Manjoo spoke of materialized before our very eyes. The irony that people’s irritation with his piece actually caused what he is fascinated with to come true is one of the enigmas and contradictions of sociology of the internet.

Revisiting the controversial article, I never said that there weren’t elements that didn’t give me serious consternation. The major issue that I and others had with the piece was Manjoo’s fascination with Late Night Black Twitter while asserting “Given that these hashtags are occurring in a subgroup of black people online, it is probably a mistake to take them as representative of anything larger about black culture.” The article attempted to lump black folks’ who use Twitter into one category until he catches himself at the end and admits that we’re not all the same. But making such a statement does not get you so easily off the hook. Isn’t this akin to saying that one’s not racist because they have black friends?

If the fascination with a subgroup of people on are on Twitter who are black deems it worthy for those non-blacks to dub it “Black Twitter,” it seems difficult to then backtrack and rationalize that while Black Twitter is not representative of all black people, enjoying a double helping of Late Night Black Twitter is just the comic relief your body needs after a long, stressful day.

It might be high time for everyone to accept as Manjoo eventually did that black people are not one monolithic entity. I find it interesting that media and researchers have so far tried to figure out how black folks’ Twitter is different as opposed to considering that there are myriad subcultures of black folk who use Twitter in their own ways.

To assume that Black Twitter is a club of teens and younger twenty-somethings is wrong and dangerous. It’s dangerous because if advertisers keep pandering only to people who are slightly older than our kids, they will be missing on the network of Twitter users who may be members of more than one subculture, thus missing out on dollars spent by gainfully employed people who spend money on themselves and the same kids they think only comprise the faceless “Black Twitter.” On a personal note, most of my Twitter followers are audiophiles and artists who are mostly in their thirties. We’re not the greedily consuming tween and teen set but nonetheless we are black and do matter. Increasingly and to their detriment, advertisers, the media, and entertainment conglomerates are forgetting about those of us who are black, intelligent and can use polysyllabic words.

All of this speaks to a larger issue, the dearth of readily accessible quality music, movies, and TV shows that offer something in the way of mental sustenance. I do believe that if people paid more attention to subcultures as opposed to treating Twitter in black and white, Twitter as a social platform could be used as a launching pad for cultural shifts in the African-American community—and we certainly we need it.

My prediction is that the next wave of cultural understanding is not going to take place in person. Technology may be stilting our ability to talk to each other face-to-face but it is enabling us take part in cyber-discussions with more people and at a dizzying rate. It is the knowledge of these subcultures, not necessarily divided by race, which communicate with each other that should be targeted by advertisers and social critics in the future instead of using outdated methods to assess our increasingly technologically literate culture now.

The melting pot theory will likely give way to a stew theory of maintaining one’s racial identity while influencing those around you. The ability to experience individual ingredients seems like the more culturally sensitive and rational way to go, as opposed to generalizing people’s preferences based upon what their Twitter avatars look like.