SXSW 2012: The Power of ‘Black Twitter’

Kimberly Ellis, commonly known as Dr. Goddess, explains why black people are more than mainstream’s view of “Black Twitter”

When the controversy erupted, InnyVinny, an L.A.-based fashion blogger, transformed Slate’s brown twitter bird by Photoshopping it several times over to display other representations of black culture. Some wore glasses, others rocked braids and afros, and several came in various shades of brown.  The effect went viral, causing black people all over the country to create brown twitter birds, placing them into their Twitter profile.

“It caused me to think about the ways Twitter has caused us to organize ourselves more,” said Ellis. She wondered what this story reflects most about us, and realized black Twitter is misunderstood not just by mainstream audiences, but by blacks themselves. Ellis realized that Twitter is a 21st Century echo of several African-American practices.

She compared the retweet to the oral tradition of call and response, as well as passing messages through the community via word of mouth.

“I think that ‘Black Twitter’ has done a fantastic job of amplifying the places and faces of black people that aren’t represented in the mainstream,” says Ellis. “One of the challenges? How do we harness the power that we have. What are the ways in which we can monetize and sell market shares for our influence?”

For instance, the rebranding of BET and the NAACP are a direct result of negative feedback received on Twitter about their programming, says Ellis. The Black Weblog Awards, which celebrates black bloggers internationally, grew after they branched out on Twitter. It’s being used for entertainment and civic engagement, said Ellis. And because black people are more prone to have fictive kin relationships—those not built on blood ties but on familiar circumstances–they are more prone to support or provide positive or negative feedback to one another on Twitter.

A group of women, known as We Are the 44%, mobilized on Twitter to denounce the misogynistic comments made by rapper Too Short in a video featured on XXLMAG.com. Many felt the 45-year-old’s “fatherly advice” video was out of line and promoted sexual violence against females.

“For black people in particular, it allows us to be more social and active about topics we are concerned about without wasting more time,” says Ellis. “Black Twitter has a lot to say and a lot to offer the world.”

To underscore her point, Ellis consulted with Gilad Lotan, the vice president of research and development for SocialFlow.com, an organization that utilizes data driven approaches to draw insight and understanding from social streams.

Ellis and Lotan joined forces to analyze an incident that happened outside of Whitney Houston’s funeral. R&B singer Jaheim, who wasn’t invited to the funeral, wore a bright purple suit and posed mournfully outside the church. “Black Twitter” bit the bullet with Jaheim’s self-promotional photo shoot garnering 26,000 responses. Since the singer hasn’t hit the mainstream market too tough, the two assume all the tweets were from blacks or those who identify with black culture

“How do we truly harness our power,” asked Ellis, concluding that there is a market value to our opinions. “We will affect your bottom line.”

Follow BlackEnterprise.com ‘ s coverage of 2012 South by Southwest (SXSW) at blackenterprise.com/technology .

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