on 09 December 2015
Few things are as entertaining as Black Twitter these days.
Discussions about topics ranging from art, to politics and social issues to entertainment are dragged out on Black Twitter streets shrouded in humour, activist ideals and just the right amount of candour to keep the social network abuzz with activity.
The phenomenon of “black twitter” is fast gaining momentum on the African continent. Research has found that Twitter’s growth has slowed over the past 12 months, but it also found that the number of South African users has soared to 6.6 million in 2014.
UCT Journalism lecturer and Media Yakwantu owner Unathi Kondile (@Unathikondile) has described the platform as “a free online platform where black voices can assert themselves and their views without editors or publishers deciding if their views matter.”
Black twitter in Africa is characterised by evolving trendy terminology uniquely peppered with African languages. (For example, it’s more common to find the use of the terms ‘kwa!’ or ‘tltltl’ instead of ‘LOL’ or ‘ROTFLMAO’ on black twitter.) Twitter users on the continent are increasingly using the platform to voice their feelings of approval or disapproval about social issues, politics and celebrity culture.
Kondile, who tweets exclusively in isiXhosa, has also remarked, “Black Twitter doesn't take itself too seriously – one could say it is the tabloid version of Twitter.”
His sentiments are echoed by Blacktwitternews.blogspot.com founder @Spar_Letta- a blogger who has capitalized on what Black Twitter talks about. “I try to take anything that gets black twitter talking, especially topics that drag on for the whole day,” she explains.
She created the website after noticing that “people get lost in their timelines and find it hard to connect the dots, which leads to them getting everything wrong.”
“So I thought, why not get them everything they need to know concerning a particular subject on a blog. Also, for people who are hardly online, Black Twitter is there to keep them updated.”
Describing what she thinks makes South African Black Twitter special, she says, “The fact that we’re diverse but we can still maintain unity; and the humour is amazing. We laugh everything off.”
Black Twitter has also taken to the memes culture voraciously, using these moments to poke fun at politicians and social issues which Black Twitter can relate to. ‘Black Twitterville’ has also hosted some of the most heated debates related to race issues. In a new twist South African Politicians- both former ANC Youth Leaders- have also been known to start ‘twars.’ This year’s biggest ‘twar’ was arguably between EFF leader Julius Malema (@Julius_S_Malema) and South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula (@MbalulaFikile.) While the latter is known as a highly active and outspoken member on the social network as well as for popularizing terms such as “phola” (the vernacular equivalent of an instruction to relax or chill), the former is also known for taking to the social network to address print media outlets, journalists and other twitter users directly in reference to South African politics and controversial Parliament antics. The narrative followed by mainstream media clearly doesn’t apply here.
Statistics point out that users are generally the black middle class, as many Africans cannot yet afford the high data costs that come with access to the internet on the continent. Research suggests that a measly 21 percent of South Africans have access to internet.
In the United States, Black Twitter users have taken to the platform to voice their anger and start revolutionary movements (such as the Ferguson outrage protests.) The movement has dedicated itself to everything from engaging academia, dictating musical trends, questioning the status quo, finding missing children to getting people fired.
The legion of Black Twitter users has been described as “ever-ready to kick ass, take names, Google addresses, send out drop squads and suffer no fools.”
A Huffington Post article noted, “You can observe its power and impact in the witty, sharply worded rebukes that haunt public figures when they do or say something stupid, especially if it’s racially insensitive.”
A now classic example of the power of Black Twitter proved itself when #HasJustineLandedYet (started on black twitter) trended worldwide following a reckless ignorant tweet by an InterActiveCorp PR executive Justine Sacco: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
The outrage expressed by Black Twitter users from South Africa (where Sacco was flying to before she hit the send button) along with the droves who contributed their opinions and disdain worldwide eventually led to her dismissal from her job within days.
Black Twitter, it seems, although at times unabashedly playful and ‘gossipy’, can also turn activist quickly.
In 2011 a twitter feud between South African opposition party leader Helen Zille and Afro Soul singer, and social activist Simphiwe Dana had black twitter folk up in arms. Zille’s controversial and cavalier response to perceived racism by black South Africans when in the city of Cape Town, was met with fury by numerous twitter users. Dana later tweeted back: “Helen Zille has managed to piss off black Twitter. She can't blame me for this one.”
More recently, Cliff Central founder, radio jock and Idols judge Gareth Cliff was met with a barrage of angry tweets from Black Twitter following his questioning of the burial costs of slain Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa. He responded by blogging about his experiences in a piece called “On ‘Black Twitter’ and being called a racist.” He also tweeted “Well today reminded me that Twitter is alive and well and someone is always readier to be outraged than sad. Go well Senzo.”-@GarethCliff.
Someone who questions the legitimacy of Black Twitter is Content Specialist Lerato Finiza (@LeratoFiniza) who has opposing views. “I really don’t think I’m on Black twitter and don’t actually believe in Black Twitter,” he says.
“I find the term stereotypical and I think it gives a bad image of black people on social media all because of the behaviour of some black people on social networks.”
He adds, “These perceptions also play a part in why different races seem to follow their own kind more than being diverse. Terms like ‘Black Twitter’ perpetuate online racism even though it might not be overt. It creates a division in association.”
This division in association can be exemplified by nuances unique to Black Twitter which seem to exclude anyone lacking an understanding of this online culture. Kimberly C. Ellis, an African-American scholar with a Doctorate in Africana Studies, who is studying the phenomenon of Black Twitter for a book she is writing called ‘The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter’ was moved to begin educating people on the subject because others who had previously attempted to do so were getting it wrong. A particular article published by Slate in 2010, titled ‘How Black People use Twitter’ motivated her even more.
Her description of Black Twitter is: “You have to look at black culture first. You start to see the essential interests; it’s the language we use, it’s what we pay attention to, it’s how we express what we like, how we talk about what we like, it’s the friends we create, the businesses we form, the people we support, the music we listen to. Black Twitter is black culture on Twitter, and you have to have a clue as to what black culture is in order to recognize it and appreciate it.”
When considering Black Twitter, one can’t help but ponder the similarities and differences between the African version and the American version.
IndiStar Africa Consultant, Suede (@iamsuede) believes there are fundamental similarities and differences between Black Twitter users in the US and those in Africa.
His view is that Twitter is “the democratization of society and an augmented version of reality. I see it as a reflection of what we experience in the real world, only amplified.”
“The ghetto tweeps will be more ratchet, the armchair activists more vocal, the intellectuals more wordy and the Black Curious overstep their boundaries even further and all are able to interact on our timelines,” he adds.
An important distinction he notes is that, “Now that Twitter allows us all to intermingle, we are able to see how much of what happens in America, becomes channelled into what is spoken about, embraced and copied in African Culture. From street style, to language, to business methods to Solange's Wedding to Kim Kardashian's ass. Africans are able to participate in a pop culture conversation which was once reserved for the first world population.”
He laments the ignorance by Africans in Africa of the cool things Pan African pop culture has to offer, often in favour of American popular culture.
“It's disturbing that more people jumped on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge than donated money to Malaria Nets or Clean Water or other organizations which exist on the continent.”
His view is that socio-economic issues filter into Africa and not the other way round. “Unfortunately not much of what happens in Africa makes it to America.”
”It's unfortunate that Bob Geldof is catching grief for BANDAID30 but not as big a noise is being made that Patrice Motsepe donated a million to Guinea.”
“I feel that there is a great opportunity being missed where Africans on Twitter, especially those who have 150-250K followers and up, can use their voice to #BreakTheInternet and lead conversations about Africa instead of following the same old US rhetoric and get caught up in ‘Ass conversations.’”
Leading conversations is something Black Twitter is becoming more adept at. Topics are discussed with the intent to get reactions and occasionally move people to action, especially concerning social issues.
Without a doubt, Black Twitter users are embracing the perks of the social network. One hopes to see more thorough use of opportunities presented by the conversations highlighting more African ideals and culture in the near future. With increased access to mobile technology on the continent, this community is set to expand even more in the next few years. The Black Twitter community is an important one which is difficult to ignore, set to initiate change and introduce many more trends. Observing its increased power and impact is something to look forward to.
By: Phumzile Twala (@PHUMIT)