The Power of Black Twitter

On any given evening, Black Twitter will be dominating the top 10 trending topics in the U.S. But if this constitutes such a strong, galvanizing movement, then why is it so marginalized?

07.06.15 5:08 AM ET

Black Twitter can move mountains.

On the night of June 28, Twitter erupted. The occasion was the 2015 BET Awards, which attracted 12 million TV viewers—less than half of the 25.3 million who tuned in to this year’s Grammys. Yet, at any given moment, eight of the top ten trending hashtags in the United States that evening were related to the BETs, and since Twitter boasts an estimated 65 million users in the U.S., it’s safe to say Black Twitter is a force to be reckoned with.

Yes, sometimes hyperbole is necessary. In the past three years, Twitter has become a necessary platform for dissent, discussion, breaking news and, yes, trends. And in the case of what has become colloquially known as “Black Twitter,” all of those things have gelled to create an online culture of black intellectuals, trendsetters, and talking heads giving voice to many of the issues that 20 years ago would’ve remained far away from the mainstream radar. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, the reality of street harassment, the racial crisis brewing in the Dominican Republic—these are all stories that became of major importance because Black Twitter made sure the world understood what was happening. And with popular hashtags like #YouOKSis and #BringBackOurGirls becoming recognized all over the world, it’s impossible to ignore how Black Twitter has been able to affect change and raise awareness.

There is also a growing criticism that Black Twitter is just the social media version of a hyper-reactionary watchdog group; a crew of “race-baiters” who wait to pounce on public figures who say the wrong thing, or who lobby to get college kids fired from part-time jobs because they tweeted something racist. But most Twitter backlashes are born of valid criticism, and in Black Twitter, black people have a platform to air grievances and demand action—things that white people in America oftentimes take for granted because they are readily available. When you don’t have the money or the legacy to sway public perception or buy political influence, the next best thing is having a platform to reach people via word of mouth. And Black Twitter has been doing that now for at least three years.

So is Black Twitter real? Very much so. But it’s interesting to see how the mainstream and “traditional” media spaces have responded to this relatively new, quite active and dynamic voice.

Mainstream media platforms mine Black Twitter for content and ideas. Popular hashtags become fixtures on the nightly news and Twitter is breaking news stories hours and sometimes days before CNN or Fox News. And as it pertains to advertising, Madison Avenue also appears to be paying close attention to the memes and hashtags generated by the culture; with Taco Bell and IHOP “on fleek” and Jimmy Johns calling customers “bae.” Black slang being used to sell crap isn’t anything new, but in the digital space, why aren’t these brands effectively recruiting those who have the strongest grasp on the demographics they’re marketing to?  

Ron Campbell is the owner and CEO of Campbell Communications, and he spoke to NBC News in February about both the lack of black hires among ad industry giants and the dearth of black companies landing major clients. His Campbell Communications is a member of Multicultural Marketing Resources, a web directory for advertisers to connect with minorities in the advertising industry. “People who create the advertising are primarily not black,” he says. “In some cases, they say they feel some inclusion is going to help their sales. It’s not that they think these groups aren’t worthwhile consumers, part of it is that they just don’t know how to create an insightful strategy.”

Black Twitter’s capacity to influence may be recognized, but it’s clear that media giants still prefer to pontificate on it from a distance without investing in that influence directly.

April Reign is the managing editor at Broadway Black, who tweets as @ReignOfApril. Insightful and engaging, she is the creator of the popular #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that helped amplify the national conversation surrounding the 2015 Academy Awards’ lack of diversity earlier this year.

“When I did #OscarsSoWhite at the beginning of the year, it led to lots of articles about Black Twitter, some about me, but most of them about the issue itself,” she says. “Which was the point: it wasn’t about me.” But it was during that time that she recognized that attribution can be a problem when the press is reporting on social media. “There were also a lot of instances I was told of where I was not given credit for starting the hashtag,” she recalls. “And I think that happens all too often. Is mainstream media following us? Absolutely. Are we getting credit for what we’ve created? Absolutely not.”

It’s recognized that mainstream media has acknowledged the creators of #BlackLivesMatter and other Twitter hashtags that have sparked movements; those creators have had to remain steadfastly committed to combating their own erasure at the hands of all-too-generic news segments that simply credit “Twitter” with drawing attention to an issue. But once #BlackLivesMatter became a movement, how many media companies sought out black people on the front lines to put to work telling the story? We have to ask whether these outlets will look past the black writer who is living it to hire the white writer who “gets” it.

“There really should be attribution because we do so much and we create so much in terms of content,” Reign adds. “And we see these articles that are really poorly written and some of us say, ‘You can take my tweets and put it up on CNN, but you’re not really talking about the problem.’”

“[Writers/editors] will submit a resume and not even get a response,” she shares. “You’re writing about my hashtag and I see myself on your site and apparently I’m enough in 140 characters and yet I’m not what you’re looking for when you’re actually looking for a writer or an editor? When, really, that’s what I’m doing with my tweets all day long.”

What has happened with Black Twitter is another example of how white marginalization leads to ingenuity in black people; so many have been able to fortify black professionals via networking and symposiums like Blogging While Brown, or organized events like the Black Brunch. That has been facilitated through relationships cultivated via the community of Black Twitter. And that in and of itself is a powerful resource—but it doesn’t change the fact that the platforms that have the widest reach are still virtually ignoring a wealth of black talent and creativity while pilfering from that very same well.

“We’ve really had to create our own spaces all too often—and I think that’s a problem,” Reign explains. While acknowledging that even black online media doesn’t seem to maximize the talented and influential persons who have gained recognition on Twitter, she also believes that white media prefers hearing black stories filtered through the lens of white observers. “I think that they’re still hiring white people to tell our stories and saying, ‘Go out there and live among the natives and come back and tell us what you’ve found,’ instead of hiring the natives,” she says. “There are those who would love to tell the story from a first-person narrative and who have the skills to do so, but our work is being appropriated all too often.”

“How many black people does HuffPost have?” Reign continues. “Are they all centered in HuffPost BlackVoices? Are they recent hires and people you would recognize as someone who’s created something recently? Or are they writers from something else who have been stuck in the ‘black section’ because they’re black?”

The ultimate objective isn’t always going to be “more black faces in white spaces” as it pertains to mainstream media, but black content is being used to drive up everything from television ratings to page views, so no one can rest easy believing that black people should only be grateful for an online space to congregate. The big guys still have the loudest megaphone, and they’re shouting an awful lot about black people and black issues lately. Part of the power of social media is rooted in that it’s almost impervious to media spin—and Black Twitter shouldn’t relinquish that power. But with so many looking to tell black stories and milk black cool, it’s perfectly appropriate and more than necessary for there to be a push for some of that black power and black influence to be reflected in the credits and on the masthead.

Black folks can speak for ourselves. You don’t have to sell our struggle secondhand.