Research

Is Black Twitter a Counterpublic: What Sociology Has to Say

Research on Black Twitter specifically and Black social media use in general is few an far between. Scholars [Roderick Graham] and Shawn Smith assert the need for the theoretical framing of Black Twitter as a counterpublic in an article

Research on Black Twitter specifically and Black social media use in general is few an far between. Scholars Roderick Graham and Shawn Smith assert the need for the theoretical framing of Black Twitter as a counterpublic in an article titled “The Content of Our #Characters: Black Twitter as Counterpublic” published in a recent issue of Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. The authors base their claim on literature about public-counterpublic spheres and the ways marginalized groups are represented within them. In order to test this claim, they use 4,000 tweets collected in January 2015 that contained the following hashtags: #BlackTwitter, #UniteBlue, #TCOT, and #BCOT. According to the authors, sociologists interested in the public sphere can use research on Black Twitter to further analyze the parameters of networked publics in the digital age.

Black counterpublics are just one type of public sphere associated with Black life:

Squires attempted to solve this problem by developing a typology of publics using examples from the African American experience. Enclaves are publics that, because of fear of sanctions, develop counterhegemonic ideas solely for consumption within that sphere. A hush harbor is an example of an enclave. Counterpublics are most closely aligned with Fraser’s initial conceptualization, engaging in wider public debate for political change. Satellites are publics that seek separation for reasons other than oppressive relations, and occasionally interact with wider publics. Their aim is to build a solid group identity. (435)

Findings suggest that #BlackTwitter is indeed a counterpublic for several reasons:

  1. They receive more favorites and replies than other hashtags. Favorites typically mean people agree with the tweet or desire to archive it. Replies, on the other hand mean someone wants to contest or extend ideas in the original tweet.
  2. The themes discussed in #BlackTwitter tend not to overlap with the themes discussed in the other hashtags.  Overall these themes include
  • Interideological mining
  • Counterdiscourses
  • Dominant terms

Black counterpublics have a historic precedent going back to slavery with hush harbors, while modern spaces include the Black church, barbershop, and salon. The unique aspect of Black networked counterpublics like Black Twitter is a more nuanced discourse than happens in these physical spaces. Nevertheless, they share the characteristic of offering Black people a sort of training grounds.

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