For the past 18 hours, many Twitter feeds have flooded with people who are feverishly trying to get #SandraBland to trend nationally. The hashtag was created to raise the public profile of an Illinois woman who was arrested in Texas during a routine traffic stop on July 10th, then found dead in a jail cell three days later. In the time it’s taken for that effort to gain traction, her photo has circulated; a recent, informal video of her calling for citizens to record police misconduct has gained viewers; and people are tweeting at their most respected journalists, wondering when to expect their Sandra Bland reporting. But Sandra Bland’s mysterious death wasn’t the only thing crowding feeds in those hours: There were also live-tweets of the ESPY Awards, predictions about today’s Emmy nominations – and a growing critique of the first column produced by the Los Angeles Times‘ new Black Twitter reporter.
The newspaper hired Dexter Thomas last week to cover online communities including the phenomenon colloquially known as Black Twitter, which has emerged as an increasingly important subject of conversation in the media. His first column, devoted to rapper Tyga’s alleged relationship with a transgender woman and the transphobia surrounding it, illustrated the challenges inherent in this task. One obvious impediment is simply time: The hours it takes to draft coverage of Twitter’s trends and conversations work against keeping coverage relevant. But there’s an even more crucial problem: There is no single, mutually-agreed-upon entity called Black Twitter. The definition of that term, the accounts included under its label, and the topics of conversation initiated and proliferated by it vary widely among users.
For instance, I follow over 3,000 accounts, at least a third of which could be categorized as belonging to Black Twitter. As a black woman, I follow black women influencers whose handles would be named on any Black Twitter list: people like Luvvie, Brokey McPoverty, Feminista Jones and Jamilah Lemieux. I also follow Desus and Kid Fury, both universally acknowledged figures in Black Twitter. But the similarities between my feed and some of my younger friends’ would likely begin to diverge there. I follow black journalists like Wesley Lowery, Joy Reid and Trymaine Lee, all of whom I would count among my Black Twitter accounts of interest. I follow black social justice users, because stories like Sandra Bland’s are important to me and I want to be among the first to raise awareness of undercovered issues. I follow black motherhood accounts like My Brown Baby, Mater Mea and Mommy Noire, because, for me, as a black mom in her mid-thirties, that’s also consistent with what I consider to be Black Twitter.
At any time, among the millions of Twitter users who identify as black, there are infinite subsets of trending conversations, of jokes and causes and connections being made and discussed. Black Twitter has the potential to diversify the way we approach traditional news reporting and to influence which stories relevant to people of color receive adequate national coverage. It provides an immediate platform for audiences of color to challenge the news institutions that report on their communities. But any journalistic beat dedicated to covering this vast community will inevitably run into issues by focusing on just one story at a time, or just one range of responses to that story. It’s an idea that runs counter to the essence of all Twitter activity, which is rapid, constant and varied. To the extent that a definition of Black Twitter can be found at all, there’s been some academic groundwork laid in its support. Dr. Meredith Clark and Dr. Kimberly Ellis (also known as Dr. Goddess) have studied its trends and presented a panel at SXSW earlier this year – and they aren’t the only ones approaching the medium as a sociological and journalistic study. Even in the absence of that sort of rigor, it’s always smart to read up on at least a few stories at a time when considering Black Twitter. Any other approach risks getting caught up in debates about marginal rappers and reality stars instead of (rather than in addition to), say, another national movement whose origin can be tracked to a Twitter hashtag: Black Lives Matter.