A leaked internal memo from Los Angeles Times Managing Editor S. Mitra Kalita alerted the newspaper’s staff that journalist Dexter Thomas was recently hired to cover “Black Twitter,” along with other online communities including “Black Medium” and “Latino Tumblr.”
Why all the fuss over an online community?
“Black Twitter” (sometimes referred to by the hashtag “#BlackTwitter”) is an online neighborhood of black Twitter users where discussion frequently focuses on race and issues of particular interest to the African American community.
For example, April Reign, who uses the Twitter handle of @ReignOfApril, is the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, sparking discussion of racial disparities and racist jokes in Hollywood. Reign told the Daily Beast in a piece published Monday that media coverage of black cultural events often overlooks members of Black Twitter as a necessary voice in the conversation.
“There really should be attribution because we do so much and we create so much in terms of content,” Reign said. “And we see these articles that are really poorly written and some of us say, ‘You can take my tweets and put it up on CNN, but you’re not really talking about the problem.'”
Writing for the Daily Beast, Stereo Williams described Black Twitter as an online destination where “dissent, discussion, breaking news and, yes, trends … have gelled to create an online culture of black intellectuals, trendsetters, and talking heads giving voice to many of the issues that 20 years ago would’ve remained far away from the mainstream radar.”
“To me, Black Twitter is essentially an extension of my black urban experience,” Michael Arceneaux, who compiled Complex Magazine’s Black Twitter’s 2013 All-Stars, told The Washington Post last year. “It’s a bunch of people like me. Black people in major cities and it’s basically six degrees of separation. I might not know you, but I might have a friend of a friend of a friend who does.”
Media, pundits and researchers have tried to wrap their heads around the phenomenon that is Black Twitter with varying levels of success.
“Black people — specifically, young black people — do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service,” Farhad Manjoo, who is not black, wrote at Slate five years ago. “They form tighter clusters on the network — they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies — posts directed at other users. It’s this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people — and in particular, black teenagers — the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.”
The quest for understanding from outsiders drew controversy last year. A team of researchers at USC’s Annenberg Lab launched a study to explore the trends and implications of Black Twitter, with what many felt was a lack of nuance. First, the study’s apparently only black member was not recognized on the project’s Web site, then people took issue with the language researchers used, saying it treated black people too much like observational subjects.
Thomas himself wrote about the issue:
“This is why I doubt that we’re going to get anything interesting or usable out of this project: this really feels like someone grasping for low-hanging fruit,” he wrote in Complex Magazine. “Black people are interesting and fun, and writing about them doesn’t really require any knowledge, because people will believe pretty much anything you say about them.”
Over the years, Thomas has covered race, technology, music and other topics. He is fluent in Japanese, having spent substantial time in Japan covering the hip-hop scene there — he’s even working on a book about it.
Thomas plans to bring a unique variety of experiences into this new journalistic role.
“I want to work with people to tell their own stories, not make things like listcicles on the top 10 things people think about Beyonce’s hair,” Thomas, a.k.a. @dexdigi, told alldigitocracy.org. “You also see people take tweets on a subject and build an article out of it, and sometimes that’s helpful. But I’m more interested in working with people to tell their stories, using my access to resources that others don’t have.”
In addition to Black Twitter, Black Medium, and Latino Tumblr, Thomas also said he will be looking at Black Tumblr and the memo announcing his hire also referenced the community of Line users in Japan.