Are Twitter Trends the New Barbershop?
Recently, a friend of mine joined Twitter and the first direct message he sent me was a simple question: “Why are all the people posting on Twitter trends black?”
It was an intentionally exaggerated but honest and innocent question and one I had been thinking about a lot lately. In the past few months, I had unscientifically noticed there was a a new topic trending each day supported by tweets from predominantly black users. (And let me note here that my trends are geolocated and cover the LA metro area so this may be different, or perhaps not even apply, depending on where you’re living. If so, please leave a comment.)
I imagine the reason why my friend sent the message to me privately is the reason why no one has written about this: we’re worried that making this claim is somehow racially insensitive. However, it’s quite the opposite. Taking note of, and understanding how, black people are using Twitter as a form of public discourse is important to combating inaccurate narratives about minority participation on the internet.
The Digital Divide and Black Technocultural Production
Allow me to explain. The rhetoric of the digital divide— that is, a gap in access between the haves and have-nots of cyberspace—continues to dominate discussion about minority use of computer and internet technology. And while this divide does exist (according to Pew, in 2008 56% of whites have broadband access vs. 41% of blacks and 55% of English-speaking Latinos), many have complicated this simplistic narrative of access and exclusion. Thuy Linh N. Tu, Alondra Nelson, and Alicia Hedlam Hines emphasized in the introduction to their foundational Technicolor collection that we need to think beyond simplistic solutions of access and consider the politics of access, i.e. what kind of access is granted and in whose interest is it being structured?
Also, as Anna Everett has argued, the rhetoric of the digital divide tends to devalue, defame, and discount a robust tradition of black technocultural production. Along with Everett’s critique, many writers (see Ben Williams’ chapter on Detroit techno in Technicolor and Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies) have worked to expose the proud, novel, and influential ways African diasporic cultures have expertly manipulated and innovated digital technologies, particularly music production, but are often forgotten amidst the focus on white dominated modes of production (such as computer programming).
Digital Dozens: Twitter Trends and Signifyin’
The overwhelming participation of black users in the creation and proliferation of Twitter trends is yet another example of the well documented history of black use of technology. But what is especially fascinating about the discourse of Twitter trends is its similarity in tone and content to African American rhetorical traditions, particularly signifyin’. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. defines signifyin’ over the course of his book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. According to Gates, signifyin’ replaces semantics with rhetorical style stretching and doubling (even tripling, quadrupling, etc.) the meaning of signifiers in an effort to parody, misdirect, and/or encode. Perhaps the most recognizable form it takes is in the irreverent vernacular verbal confrontations called the dozens (e.g. “Yo momma’s so ______, she(‘s) ______!” duel). The importance of the exchange of the dozens is not in the denotative meaning of the exchange but in the creative manipulation of style within the defined rhetorical tradition. A very similar exchange occurs within the bounds of the Twitter trend topic. The hash tag and phrase that compose the trend provide the framework within which participants can play with style.
Signifyin’ and the dozens are most often associated with street corners, school yards, and barbershops and are defined by a very distinct rhetorical tradition and set of codes and practices that are protected and safe from surveillance and policing by those outside of the discourse community, i.e. women, men, whites, etc. To account for the protected discursive exchanges within these public placesVorris Nunley has expanded the definition of the hush harbor, a secret place for African American slaves to engage in religious practice, to these other spaces defined by the rhetorical traditions of black culture. Within this context, signifyin’ is not simply a play of language but a rhetorical performance that provides access to a politically protected discourse community. Within this community, using this rhetorical tradition, black people have employed the dozens and other modes of signifyin’ as a means of entertainment, communication, and political negotiation. Consider the trend #shutyobrokeassup. While it’s clear this discussion is meant to engage in the humorous one-upmanship of the dozens, the subject is of class interest and the language is distinctly black vernacular. It might be easy to dismiss these tweets as silliness but within the context of class struggle they also serve as a coping mechanism and shared acknowledgment of political inequality, however slight or unconscious that intent may be.
The Not So Hush Harbor
But given those similarities, Twitter seems to be fundamentally transforming the traditional safe physical space of the hush harbor. For one thing, the trend discussion is explicitly public, so much so that it’s a point of pride to get a discussion so popular that it begins to appear on the left hand side of the Twitter main page. In this way, Twitter trends are less a traditional hush harbor and more in line with mass market reconfigurations of black culture wherein other discourse communities have access to the performance but not necessarily the code or lived experience that makes the performance politically or culturally significant. Here I see some alignment between commodified forms of black discourse (for example, blaxploitation film) and queer camp which provides a distinctly different experience to audiences depending on their subjectivities and social identifications.
Twitter facilitates a large scale, distributed, and exponentially more populated arena in which to signify but at the cost of greater surveillance and, it seems, less discussion between participants. But, just as in queer camp, the codes which provide a barrier of access work to maintain the appropriate discursive boundaries within which to communicate. Without the walls of the barbershop, rhetoric becomes even more important as a proof of authenticity.
Thus, Twitter, as new configuration of the barbershop, is a prime example of how black people are not invisible on the internet but are emblematic of the tightrope of privacy we all walk in taking our sociality to the net.