When I first saw that there was a Slate article on "How Blacks Use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging" the automatic response was to roll my eyes.
I discovered the link on Facebook, posted by one of the facilitators of the regional leadership program I recently completed. He happens to be black and specialize in diversity consulting and training. He posted it with the comment "Yet another attempt to analyze black behavior. Good luck with that." and the article showed the now internet-famous and already memed black twitter bird:
Now, I assumed that this image came from someones profile image the author had come across during his "research." I later discovered that no, Slate came up with this image just for this article. So there's that.
I clicked through and read the article, and honestly? I couldn't even begin to process it. I decided that I would just go to bed. But before I did, I tried to bait some of my favorite like-minded people who maybe, just maybe, might get as worked up as I was and break it all down for me while I slept. I also did some twitter searching to see if anyone else shared my reaction and found two things: white people (rather, people with white profile photos) retweeting the article as "very interesting!" and a handful of black people (or people with black profile photos and/or who had a number of tweets previously about black issues and/or specifically said that they are black) retweeting the article saying "are you kidding me?"
So, I sighed a few more times and went to bed.
[At this point, if you haven't already, you should read the whole article]
And when I woke up, it all seemed clear: This has to be satire. Right? Slate did this to cause a stir in the twitter- bloges- phere and they are planning to follow it up with a real discussion, right? Right?
Now, it hasn't even been 24 hours, so maybe that's still the case, but from the replies the author (Farhad Manjoo) has been writing on his twitter account in response to people questioning the article, I'm sadly going to have to go with no. This article is supposed to be for real.
Now, let me say for the record that I don't think that this article is overtly racist. I'm not crying racism. I suppose, since I'm forcing myself to synthesize these thoughts is that I'm crying incredulousness.
I guess it all comes down to the fact that the framing of this article - sorry, this "research" - feels so 1960 anti-deseg propaganda. See how interesting these people are? See how they are so funny and lively? See how they never use good english? See how idle they are with their time? The brown bird image even gives the whole thing a little Al Jolson feel.
Now, the last half of the article is spent very pointedly disputing the validity of the article's title - both through quotes and pointing out the problems in the some of the data used. But I feel like it's too late. It's like when the little girl in grade school asks if she can touch your hair and then doesn't understand why, when all she does is say it's "neat" - which, after all is a compliment, isn't it? - you still have your feelings hurt.
It's very possible (likely, maybe, in the world of thirst for clicks and pageviews) that Mr. Manjoo submitted a much more even handed article, that the editor slapped on the definitive title and subtitle and added the brown bird to create some buzz.
But it's equally as possible that, even though this is 2010, no one at Slate sees anything uncomfortable, slightly offensive and/or a little disconcerting about the framing of this piece.
Because, really, context is everything.
- Things that are not surprising: Black people use twitter
- "What were Black people talking about on twitter last night?"
- Pew Fall 2009 report on demographics of twitter use and status updating