Twelve years after its inception, Black Twitter is a force to be reckoned with. From calling out celebrities for cultural appropriation to organizing marches in the streets, this loose-knit online community has carved out a unique niche on social media. In a new study, three University of Colorado-Boulder students look at its impact and roots, which they traced back to the era of Jim Crow.
And just what is Black Twitter? It’s an organically formed community that celebrates Black culture in a variety of ways. As Jason Parham writes in Wired: “Black Twitter is the incubator of nearly every meme and social justice cause worth knowing about, it is both news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury, a comedy showcase, therapy session and a family cookout all in one.”
And that’s an apt description, CU-Boulder doctoral student Shamika Klassen says.
But there are historic origins to this same sense of community that are echoed and amplified on the digital platform. These bring benefits, as well as serious challenges, and that’s what Klassen and her colleagues wanted to explore.
In October, Klassen presented a paper entitled “More than a Modern Day Green Book: Exploring the Online Community of Black Twitter,” coauthored with Joy Weinberg and Casey Fiesler from CU-Boulder, Sara Kingsley from Carnegie Mellon, and Kalyn McCall from Harvard.
The two-year study examined the Black Twitter community through the lens of a book first published 85 years ago, The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was written to help Black travelers navigate racism in America in the era of Jim Crow.
The book, last published in 1966, identified Black-owned or Black-friendly businesses, such as restaurants, hotels and gas stations, across America, as well as calling out places Black travelers should avoid.
Black Twitter functions in much the same way in times that are no less troubled, Klassen and her fellow researchers found.
Theirs is an innovative, textured approach to examining a cultural phenomenon that in a little over a decade has become a powerful force not only online but in real life, just as the Green Book’s author’s annual printed version helped the Black community in troubled times.
Using the Green Book as a bridge across time, the study explored how Black Twitter fosters community building, empowerment, safety and activism, while also struggling with racism, appropriation, and the disruption of outsiders.
The research team collected 75,000 tweets on Black Twitter, used a Python script to randomly select 1,000 of those tweets, and then conducted interviews with 18 Black Twitter users who agreed to participate in the study.
They found that community building was an important aspect of Black Twitter to interviewees and that they described a closer connection there than on the rest of Twitter or other online platforms.
“Yeah, it’s really a community, honestly. That’s how it feels. It feels like a community where someone on Twitter is just like, here’s some articles, here’s some tweets about random things, but when you go to Black Twitter, it’s like, ‘hey family, what’s up,’ you know?”
Black Twitter users spoke of it as a place to laugh and grieve, to console and empower and organize.
That holds especially true for those who are geographically isolated from large Black communities. Black Twitter helps them feel less marginalized and more connected across the digital space.
“It’s almost that same sense of community. Like when you show up to a family reunion and it could be somebody that you’ve never seen before, but obviously the fact that they’re there is like, this must be my cousin. So it’s kind of the same thing with Black Twitter,” an interviewee responded.
Just as the Green Book did before, Black Twitter plays an important role in supporting Black-owned businesses.
“I’ve found a ton of Black-owned vineyards. I’ve had friends who, you know, found like Black-owned laundry detergent and Black-owned toothbrushes. I just ordered some like Black-owned honey from these Black beekeepers,” one respondent explained.
It also serves as a way to warn and even call out racist incidents and businesses.
“Someone will sort of like call them out and then Black people will swarm and get on their Google reviews or like Yelp or whatever, just so people know, you know, to not go here just because they’re right. And to me that’s very helpful,” an interviewee remarked.
Empowerment and the uplifting of community members abound on Black Twitter, as do calls for real-life activism. #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo grew into veritable social movements that have worked to change power structures and brought worldwide attention to injustices that span far beyond the digital space they were birthed in.
But issues of safety, racism, outsiders entering the community who may or may not be bots, and “culture vultures” who appropriate material from Black Twitter for their own gain remain persistent problems.
“How do you keep that creativity in a way where it can still be appreciated, but you keep that ownership of it within Black Twitter? The people who are coming up with this stuff that honestly has led to cultural shifts, different corporations on a large scale are literally directly advertising toward Black Twitter,” one respondent commented. “And so how do you harness that power in a way where you’re only using Twitter as a platform and not Twitter is using this as a new machine of making more money.”
The paper concludes with a call for more Black participation in creating new platforms and communities.
“What would it look like for a social platform to be built by and for Black people, taking into consideration the benefits and challenges to inform the creation of that new digital space in order to foster connectivity, survival, and a means to thrive?” the authors posit.
“The suggestion that Black people should be more involved in designing and building technology is both important and challenging.”
Here we speak with one of the study’s principal authors, Shamika Klassen, about her own journey and what led her and her colleagues to take on the topic of Black Twitter, as well as the paper’s most revelatory findings.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in San Antonio, Texas, and thanks to a math camp that I attended, the director encouraged me to apply to Stanford University and I did and was blessed to be able to attend there for my undergraduate degree as a first-generation college student. I graduated with a degree in African and African American studies and served a year with AmeriCorps which moved me to New York City.
I ended up working for a year before going to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan for a master’s degree in divinity. I wanted to commit to a life of service and I wasn’t sure exactly who I wanted to serve and how.
I did my thesis paper on Gamergate/Black Lives Matter which was growing immensely in New York at the time, and as well as the ways that the social justice issues I was seeing in the digital space, in terms of ethics and in terms of how faith communities, were responding.
There was an incident where a police department was using images of Black men for target practice, so a hashtag was created and you had these pastors and clergy in their collars with a headshot and they were saying #UseMeInstead.
How did you end up in Boulder?
After working for a time in New York, I was directed by a colleague to information science at a conference by Nathan Schneider, he was a new professor at CU-Boulder and he said, ‘Well, we have an information science program here that’s new and I think that you would be great at.’
I didn’t know what information science was before he told me about it and I was trying to find a PhD program where I could continue to study technology, ethics and social justice issues.
Information science was a great place and a lot of discussions were being had on the ways in which technology is created, used and misused, and how digital spaces are affecting people writ large. And so that was really appealing to me.
What was that transition like, coming from New York to Boulder, a small town that’s about 90 percent white?
Boulder is strikingly different in terms of diversity.
I like to think of Boulder as a small town with big-city vibes. It has Pearl Street, the small-town main street thing, and then there are big box stores, like a Target.
There seems to be a mixture of a lot of kinds of things here, except for people.
When I started I was one of two people of color in the entire doctoral program in information science. We were the first.
There are more of us now, which is very encouraging and I’m hoping that the new Center for African and African American Studies at CU-Boulder, which is being headed by professor Reiland Rabaka, will not only support the BIPOC students and particularly Black students who are at CU-Boulder currently but will also attract new students to the school and help with retention as well as recruitment. I see some promise and some hope for Boulder for sure.
When and how did this project begin?
Our research officially started in the fall of 2019. One of the authors, Sarah Kingsley, had the idea to look at Jim Crow as a racist algorithm and approached me and said I think you would be great for this research. I said that sounds fascinating and I would love to, but as we were talking about it, we were having trouble coming up with the research questions and a methodology for the research design. So I brought in another friend of mine, Kalyn McCall who is getting her Ph.D. at Harvard, to help us think through the research process.
I had just finished reading the book Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks and I was thinking about how she had built this bridge across time between the poor houses of the 19th century and the digital poorhouses of today that are created by algorithms.
That idea of building a bridge made me think, OK, what are the elements we can draw on during the time of Jim Crow that have to do with racism and navigating racism? So we ended up in looking at the Green Book, which emerged during the Jim Crow era.
Kalyn thought that a contemporary counterpoint to that would be something like Black Twitter. And as soon as we made those two connections that’s when the research questions started to flow.
We started collecting tweets in April 2020 and I started conducting interviews in the summer of 2020.
We were bringing in Black Twitter, we were bringing in the Negro Motorist Green Book, we had interviews that we had conducted. There was a lot of data to analyze and to go through and we couldn’t fit it all in one paper, so there are two more papers coming out.
What were some of the challenges to the Black Twitter community that your research uncovered?
One of the challenges that I thought was really surprising was around safety.
When we asked people in the interviews, ‘do you think of Black Twitter as a safe space?,’ a lot of people said it all depends upon your definition of safe space.
It was sort of split, where some people did think that there were a lot of elements and aspects of Black Twitter that were safe, but there were other people who expressed concerns about outsiders, dealing with racist comments from accounts that could be real people or could be bots. That question—‘Is Black Twitter a safe space?’—doesn’t have an answer.
I think one of the greatest pitfalls of Black Twitter is the immense amount of content from people that is appropriated and used without permission, taken out of context, picked up by people for the benefit of other people, either financially or otherwise.
What are some of Black Twitter’s greatest accomplishments?
I think it would be very easy to point to the activism that’s happened, but I think there are so many big and small things people have gotten out of Black Twitter.
I know one of the stories from the interviews that we did was of a participant who was being abused by someone and they turned to Black Twitter for support and were able to get that support and navigate that very difficult and traumatic experience with the help of people they found within this community.
There was someone else who was applying to graduate school programs and there was an account that sent them a GRE book and said, ‘good luck, sis, you got this.’ And it was such an encouraging and uplifting thing.
It’s these small moments alongside these big moments. You can go from lifting each other up and encouraging each other and making each other laugh to seeking justice and demanding better of our society for the Black community and Black people all in one fell swoop.
How do you see Black Twitter and other online communities evolving in the future to better serve those who inhabit them?
I am an optimist, but I’m not a technosolutionist. I’m not a technochauvinist. I don’t think that technology is going to solve all the world’s problems. But I do think that there’s a way to build and create technology that can serve people well. And when I say people I mean all people, every people, marginalized people, centering them and bringing their desires and wishes and hopes into fruition.