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SXSW 2012: The Power of ‘Black Twitter’

Twitter birds like the one shown above began appearing in Twitter profiles across the Web (Image: @bfnh)

Kimberly C. Ellis joined twitter in 2009 but she didn’t understand its influence in the black community until the G-20 economic summit was held in her hometown of Pittsburgh. On Twitter, Ellis, also known in the social media space as Dr. Goddess, decided to follow the G-20 hashtag, which provided a stream of tweets from locals regarding heads of government, finance ministers, and central bank governors who descended upon her town.

She decided to go there and saw police corralling the crowd, people getting arrested and broken glass on the ground. “I started to tweet about the confusion, the fear and the mayhem,” said Ellis, a political activist, columnist, author, playwright, and entertainer, with a Ph.D. in American studies.  Even though mainstream media outlets were present, she realized she became a newsfeed for reporters as the situation unfolded. “Why were my tweets becoming a primary source,” she asked herself.

That experience inspired her to embrace Twitter and her appreciation for the microblogging platform grew. She quickly learned that she could use it to promote her personal brand through her company, Dr. Goddess Arts, Education and Management.

In her SXSW panel discussion, “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter,” Ellis used this story to prove a point: “Black Twitter,” or black users on the platform, don’t solely use the social media site for entertainment.

Slate ruffled her feathers in 2010 when the magazine penned an article about how black people use Twitter, but instead of looking at the stats holistically, focused on a subset of black culture, which consisted of mostly teens and comedians “playing the dozens” by using twitter hashtags. Slate referenced hashtags like #Youknowyoureblackif.

Ellis was offended. In her mind, the oversimplified analysis would result in furthering stereotypes associated with African Americans.  “What I discovered was the mischaracterization and wack deconstruction of ‘Black Twitter.’ It reinforced what people think about black people.”

The tweets the Slate article examined were “a slice of a small representation of who black people are,” said Ellis. What the article missed out on was the celebration of being a black nerd on “Black Twitter,” explained Ellis in her charismatic theater-styled presentation. The article skipped out on analyzing other organized twitter chats like #blacklitchat, #hiphoped, #smallbizchat, #Gradchat, and #PHDchat—all of which also include a large “Black Twitter” following.

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