Wednesday, August 11, 2010

When April Fools comes in August [You have got to be kidding me]

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?"

Because, really.

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


Farhad said...

Hi Nicole,

I appreciate your thoughtful response to the piece and why it bothered you.

To start at the beginning: Yes, the piece is not satire. It's supposed to be for real. I'm genuinely interested in why hashtags that pop up on Twitter are started by and populated mainly by black people. I don't think it's an offensive line of inquiry to ask why that is.

Here are some of the things I find interesting about this: The fact that a lot of black people respond to these tags; the fact that not a lot of people of other races respond to these tags (especially early in the tag's life); the fact that these tags are started by black people; the fact that these tags seem to be sparked by people with a lot of reciprocal links; the fact that the tags sometimes comment on race in a very direct way.

The article was an attempt to discover some insights about this phenomenon. I think the piece reports some plausible theories -- the tradition of the dozens; the fact that black teens use the network like a public instant messenger, with a lot more retweets and at-replies; the fact that these groups tend to be tightly clustered.

As you note, I also mentioned the dangers in seeing more in these tags than they might merit. I noted several times that not all black people participate, that many criticize the phenomenon and what it implies about black people.

I'm trying to determine what you're criticizing, exactly. (cont'd below....)

Farhad said...

(cont'd from above...)

Do you deny that there are a lot of these tags on Twitter that are started by and populated by black people?

You say you're "crying incredulousness," so I wonder what you don't believe -- do you not believe that these tags exist, or do you not believe that people are legitimately interested in why they exist and are asking why?

It seems like your main concerns have to do with the tone of the piece: The headline, the illustration, and the fact that statements about this phenomenon not covering "all black people" came late in the piece.

I don't choose headlines and illustrations, so I won't comment on them.

But as to your point about the quotes from people criticizing the tags coming "too late," I guess I have to say I disagree. I feel like that fit into the story right there--after discussing how some black people use Twitter in a way that is genuinely different, I discuss that the research doesn't apply to all of them.

You are free to disagree. I'm glad you took the time to respond. But I do disagree with you about this phenomenon; the hashtags are genuinely interesting, they're a part of what turns out to be black teens' novel way of using the service, and I think it was worth pointing out.

I was trying to write this piece in a way that illuminated rather than caused offense. I'm sorry that happened here.



InnyVinny said...

Farhad, it wasn't really offensive (IMO), but as you said in the last part of you comment here, this "phenomenon" is something that is more indicative of how black TEENS use Twitter, not black people. For Slate to frame your piece as if how black teens use the service is how all black people use the service was misguided and does rub a lot of people the wrong way. I liken it to people who find BET interesting and indicative of black American culture when it IS NOT.

No one is denying that a lot of the more ridiculous hash tags are picked up by users who happen to be black (and also young, and also with a lot of time on their hands). A lot just fail to see the interest in them because they are tantamount to what you would find in a low-brow comedy club or back-and-forth banter between friends; and no one seems to be doing research studies on those...

Bryan Holdman said...

But you kind of failed, Farhad. When you boil the thesis of your piece down to the essence, all you're asking is "Why are Black people different?" Then you go on to marvelat the idea that Black folk use a social networking network?!? And socialize?!? How strange and incredible!

That's offensive.

Had you offered more context -- comparison or contrast of the habits of Blacks versus other ethnic, age, or socio-ecnomic groups, for example -- I might have at least rolled with your piece for a minute. But the fact that you only really looked at people who chose to present a Black profile pic? As much as that implies that the user could be Black, does it not also imply that the user might just be someone of another race? It's possible.

Sorry, my friend. I'm Black and I'm offended, rather than illuminated, by your article. In the future, you may want to delve deeper than suggesting one group uses Twitter differently. Why not get into what it is they're actually talking about: an open discussion about race and stereotype in America, generated by the stereotyped group, in a forum where people of all backgrounds are free to participate...and eventually do? The fact that these hashtags trend means that people want to have this conversation. And the fact that people seem to have this discussion with candor and humor...THAT'S an illuminating piece of journalism.

Farhad said...

Bryan, you said:

Had you offered more context -- comparison or contrast of the habits of Blacks versus other ethnic, age, or socio-ecnomic groups, for example -- I might have at least rolled with your piece for a minute.

The piece does this:

Not only are the people who start these trends more tightly clustered on the network, they're also using the network differently. Most people on Twitter have fewer followers than the number of people they're following—that is, they're following celebrities, journalists, news organizations, and other big institutions that aren't following them back. But according to Meeder, the users who initiate blacktags seem to have more reciprocal relationships—they're following everyone who follows them. Tigress_Lee, the user who helped spark #wordsthatleadtotrouble, has 1,825 followers, and she's following 1,873. BigJamaal has 11,962 followers, and he's following 11,203. These patterns suggest that the black people who start these tags "are using Twitter as a social tool," Meeder says. "They're using Twitter like a public instant messenger"—using the service to talk to one another rather than broadcast a message to the world.

Unknown said...

@FManjoo is either very out of touch with Twitterverse or is a great actor. Black people are not the only ones who "call and respond" ie: shortyawards, twitestival, #FF how "unracist" of him to try to show that everyone uses hashtags and journalistically responsible of him to use the data from or which both keep archives of all the hashtags created and utilize by all Tweeters some of which are Black Folk that have nothing to do with "Fun" ie #Daddytalk, #BETSUCKS. Oh wait he didnt do that he/slate used a racist pic and quoted bad inaccurate data sources as the latest research on How Black People use Twitter. way to go @FManjoo

Nicole said...

A few things, but most immediately, Farhad, I think you misinterpret what Bryan was alluding to. The paragraph you excerpted compares the blacktag group, previously described as young and black to simply "most people on twitter."

But generally, you are right. I am mostly struck by the framing of the piece, less so the content. The way it's framed kind of sets you up for, well, the reaction you're getting.

While I agree that looking at the inter-workings of how hashtags end up top trenders is fascinating and worthy of research _and_ that it's interesting that it's black teens, the way the article reads is that it's fascinating and interesting and "awesome" be_cause_ it's black teens.

It would seem that the hypothesizing on why those hashtags rise to the top and the behavior it indicates would then lead to discussing what other groups (likely interest clusters as opposed to a demo) use the service similarly and/or what other behavior patterns (or demos) emerge when looking at other tags rising to the top.

Instead, the entire article feels framed as a fascination piece on black behavior. Which in this day and age, I feel incredulous about. (Though I'm told often I shouldn't :)).

I appreciate your participation in the dialogue. I'm a firm believer in an author engaging after publishing.

dr.kira said...

As someone who does studies race relations and does intergroup dialogue work, my guess is that the problem is only partially due to packaging. I can appreciate where Mr. Manjoo was headed, but I get off track with the following passage which begins with a quote from Choire Sicha:

"'At the risk of getting randomly harshed on by the Internet, I cannot keep quiet about my obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter, an obsession I know some of you other white people share, because it is awesome.'

As a nonwhite person, I must concur: It is awesome—although I'm less interested in the content of these tags than in the fact that they keep getting so popular."

My hunch is that if the author wanted the focus to remain on the question of how these tags got so popular, the bit about how "awesome" watching Black people on Titter is could have been cut. It distracts from the stated intention. Furthermore, after reading the linked post on The Awl, it is clearly coming from a place of "look at how funny these Black people are," which speaks to Nicole's earlier point about being incredulous.

DKMann said...

The article points out its flaws in the final two paragraphs but fails to see how these flaws are reflective of the lack of insight occurring throughout the piece. There are several, many, demographic modes to decipher when analyzing a fad or study. Reduction to an outdated methodology of race hampers any true discourse on the matter at hand. Since the early '80's critics of race and social science based in race are careful to utilize race as a constructing form within the context of its construction. Meaning, Nicole's reference to a civil rights era methodology is true in that this article positions its reader to assume a shared knowledge and understanding of what it means to be Black in America, as though in 2010 this were still, if ever, a universal phenomenon. So though allowance is given for the fact that "not all black people" use Twitter in the same fashion, the lingering assumption is that enough of them do so as to designate Black as a universal signifier. Immediately connotations of behavior based on race are injected, behavior that is forever placed within socially mediated performances of Blackness, a Blackness that remains wholly descendant of enslaved Africans hailing from the shores of Africa.
The resistance to this piece is in its hazy oversight of the functionality of race in discourse, and how it can mask itself under the cloak of fads, phenoms, and the such. Investments are placed in coded language for ease in communication amongst individuals. Words such as Black and White carry heavy loads in our country due to continual deposits to their nominal status in discourse. As conversations allow for signifier:Black to be repeatedly divested of affectual and experiential embodiments of race, beyond our National social imaginaries understanding of Black, so too will fissures continually appear in our attempts to grapple with our racial past and present. Without an understanding of how constructions of class, access, wealth, and environment intersect with constructions of race, we are forever mired in a degenerative binary of black and white.

Kismet said...

Nicole, thanks for this, really. Inspired me to write my thoughts here:

heading over to @innyvinny's now to grab my own twitterbird.... #hotmess