In April, Edison Media Research released a survey which found that nearly one-quarter of people on Twitter are African-American; the firm noted this was "approximately double the percentage of African-Americans in the current U.S. population." That survey has been widely cited as an explanation for the popularity of blacktags, but as Fred Stutzman later pointed out, Edison's survey had a high margin of error, and thus didn't really tell us much about how many black people use Twitter. In general, it's difficult to get demographic information about Twitter users—you don't have to tell the service your age, race, ethnicity, or geographic location when you join. As such, when we talk about black Twitter users, we're usually talking about people who've chosen photos of black people as their avatars. This lack of reliable demographic information has hampered many efforts to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.
Nevertheless, Brendan Meeder thinks he's got a good hypothesis about what's going on. Meeder, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University, has downloaded the tweets of more than 100 million users. (Twitter gave him special permission to do so for research purposes.) He's been probing this collection to see how Twitter users interact with one another; he's particularly interested in how trends begin and spread through a social network. While analyzing his database a few months ago, Meeder noticed something strange—he found a cluster of hundreds of users whose profiles were connected to one another. When he looked up the users, he noticed that a lot of them were black. It's in exactly these kinds of tight-knit groups that Twitter memes flourish, Meeder says. "It's my impression that these hashtags start in dense communities—people who are highly connected to each other," Meeder says. "If you have 50 of these people talking about it, think about the number of outsiders who follow at least one of those 50—it's pretty high at that point. So you can actually get a pretty big network effect by having high density."
Not only are the people who start these trends more tightly clustered on the network, they're also using the network differently. Most people on Twitter have fewer followers than the number of people they're following—that is, they're following celebrities, journalists, news organizations, and other big institutions that aren't following them back. But according to Meeder, the users who initiate blacktags seem to have more reciprocal relationships—they're following everyone who follows them. Tigress_Lee, the user who helped spark #wordsthatleadtotrouble, has 1,825 followers, and she's following 1,873. BigJamaal has 11,962 followers, and he's following 11,203. These patterns suggest that the black people who start these tags "are using Twitter as a social tool," Meeder says. "They're using Twitter like a public instant messenger"—using the service to talk to one another rather than broadcast a message to the world.
Now for the caveats. There is an obvious problem with talking about how black people use Twitter, as many of the black Twitter users I spoke to took pains to point out: Not all black people on the service are participating in these hashtags, and there are probably a great many who are indifferent to or actively dislike the tags. "It's the same issue I have with certain black comedy shows," says Elon James White, a comedian who runs the site This Week in Blackness. "They put out these ideas of blackness that—if it were someone of another race saying them—you'd go, 'Whoa, that's racist!' I remember when #ifsantawasblack hit, I lost my shit. I was freaking out. It was literally a game of, What's the most racist thing we can say? And it was black people saying it!"
Omar Wasow, a co-founder of BlackPlanet.com and a contributor to Slate's sister publication The Root, was one of several black people who told me that he rarely sees the people in his timeline joining these hashtags. "If you're not a teen or twentysomething and probably working class, you're likely not following these people, and you're out of the loop," he says. Like me, Wasow says he only notices these conversations when they hit Twitter's trending lists.
Given that these hashtags are occurring in a subgroup of black people online, it is probably a mistake to take them as representative of anything larger about black culture. "For people who aren't on the inside, it's sort of an inside look at a slice of the black American modes of thought," says Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, also a former writer at The Root. "I want to be particular about that—it's just a slice of it. Unfortunately, it may be a slice that confirms what many people already think they know about black culture."