By Apryl Williams and Doris Domoszlai

Individuals and groups on Twitter actively (and sometimes messily) negotiate meaning in a networked public forum. On Twitter, the lines between author and audience, fact and opinion, news and rumor aren’t always clear. One of the most powerful and unified identities to emerge on this social network is “Black Twitter.”

What is Black Twitter? How does this group manage its cultural identity? How does it take collective action? We followed two charged media events, the revelation of Paula Deen’s use of racist language and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, to better understand the impact of Black Twitter.

There is no single identity or set of characteristics that define Black Twitter. Like all cultural groups, Black Twitter is dynamic, containing a variety of viewpoints and identities. We think of Black Twitter as a social construct created by a self-selecting community of users to describe aspects of black American society through their use of the Twitter platform. Not everyone on Black Twitter is black, and not everyone who is black is represented by Black Twitter. Furthermore, one need not use the hashtag #blacktwitter in order to participate in Black Twitter. Empirically, we know that African Americans use Twitter in higher proportions than other racial groups—Pew’s 2012 social media report found that one in four users is African American.

Beyond demography, Black Twitter showcases cultural knowledge and insider access. Users of color engage in the practice of “signifying” in order to make sense of social events that have broken the social contract or that somehow disengage implicit social norms. Sociologist Sarah Florini posits that “Signifying”, which “deploys figurative language, indirectness, doubleness, and wordplay as a means of conveying multiple layers of meaning, serves as a powerful resource for the performance of Black Cultural Identity on Twitter.” Signifying is a genre of linguistic performance that allows for the communication of multiple layers of meaning simultaneously, frequently involving wordplay and misdirection.

Communication scholar Zizi Papacharissi notes that these performances can also foster levels of intimacy that may sustain and further cultivate social ties ( 2012). In addition to performing black racial identity, Black Twitter users also use the site as an arena for class portrayal, to mitigate identity claims, and to challenge outsider groups’ perceptions of blackness. Further, minority groups have traditionally looked inward for support to counter representation and norms in the mainstream media. We observed this practice during Black Twitter’s response to the high profile controversies involving Paula Deen and George Zimmerman.

Within minutes of the news about Deen’s comments, Black Twitter formulated a collective response to Deen’s offensive actions. She responded to these and other critics by issuing a public apology on the Today Show that was not well received. A few weeks later, she attempted to deflect attention away from the trial by inviting her fans to interact with her via Twitter. On July 11th she tweeted:

Replies from Black Twitter ranged from the morbid:

to the sharp:

These responses challenged Deen’s perception of blackness while mitigating the effects of the emotionally painful reality of racial prejudice with humor, a classic aspect of signifying.

Though the media brought Paula Deen’s case into the public eye, Black Twitter played an important role in recognizing Deen’s breach of the social contract. Users then acted to hold her accountable for her actions. In response to Deen’s comments, social media monitoring firm Crimson Hexagon, released a study on the use of social media in reputation and crisis management. According to their study, there were as many posts about Food Network in nine days as there were during the two months prior to the scandal. Black Twitter user @goldietaylor summarized the response in a tweet:

Black Twitter also responded strongly to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Just a few days after the verdict, the community exploded with posts about Juror B37’s potential book deal with literary agent Sharlene Martin who ultimately cancelled the book deal. Recognizing Black Twitter’s role in the story, BuzzFeed writer Shani O. Hilton concluded, “…not a surprise. The hive has become a swarm. It’s diffuse, powerful, and all around you.” In response to BuzzFeed’s article, the hashtag #BlackBuzzFeed was born, which trended nationally. Furthermore, black twitter has been  proactive in initiating and maintaining calls for protest and boycotts in response to the Zimmerman verdict. The hashtags #Boycott Florida, #BoycottAmerica, and #InMemoryofTrayvon are just a few of the many popular hashtags that simultaneously express the frustration and organization of the Black Twitter community.

As a social construct, Black Twitter is using its collective identity to gain leverage in conversations both within and outside of social media. Black Twitter is successfully harnessing the power of its collective identity in order to express the views and beliefs of a group that is sometimes marginalized by dominant ideas in the mainstream media. As researchers, understanding Black Twitter is important for analyzing the social dynamics of the impact media messages and events. This group sits at the center of new media and broadcast media, giving us a glimpse of new forms of collective action in the digital age.