How black people use Twitter.

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Aug. 10 2010 4:45 PM

How Black People Use Twitter

The latest research on race and microblogging.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

As far as I can tell, the Twitter hashtag #wordsthatleadtotrouble got started at about 11 a.m. Pacific Time on Sunday morning, when a user named Kookeyy posted this short message: "#wordsthatleadtotrouble 'Don't Worry I gotchu." A couple minutes later, Kookeyy posted another take on the same theme: "#wordsthatleadtotrouble - I Love Yuh *kiss teeth*." On Twitter, people append hashtags to categorize their messages—the tags make it easier to search for posts on a certain topic, and they can sometimes lead to worldwide call-and-response conversations in which people compete to outdo one another with ever more hilarious, bizarre, or profane posts. A woman in South Africa named Tigress_Lee moved the chatter in that direction: "#wordsthatleadtotrouble 'the condom broke'!"she wrote. From there, the meme took off. "We need to talk #wordsthatleadtotrouble," declared BigJamaal (11,920 followers), and then he proceeded to post a blizzard of suggestions, including "#wordsthatleadtotrouble I dont know why you got that Magnum in your wallet you clearly live a Durex lifestyle."

Over the next few hours, thousands of people added to the meme. According to Trendtistic, a site that monitors and archives hot Twitter topics, #wordsthatleadtotrouble was one of Twitter's top 20 hashtags on Sunday, and it was the top tag that was not based on some real-life event (like the Teen Choice Awards or football). By Monday morning, Twitter was displaying #wordsthatleadtotrouble on its list of "trending topics." If you'd clicked on the tag, you would have noticed that contributions to the meme ranged from the completely banal ("#wordsthatleadtotrouble we just going out with friends!") to the slightly less so ("#wordsthatleadtotrouble I didn't know she was your sister"). If you clicked when the meme was at its peak—that is, before it spread widely beyond the cluster of people who started it—you would have also noticed something else: To judge from their Twitter avatars, nearly everyone participating in #wordsthatleadtotrouble was black.

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Call #wordsthatleadtotrouble a "blacktag"—a trending topic initiated by a young African-American woman in Hollywood, pushed to a wider audience by a black woman in South Africa, and then pushed over the top by thousands of contributions from users who appear to be black teenagers all over the United States. This story is not at all out of the ordinary on Twitter. #wordsthatleadtotrouble was one of a few such tags that hit the trending topics list on Monday—others included #ilaugheverytime and #annoyingquestion—and it's typical of the sort of tag that pops up almost daily. (A new one, #wheniwaslittle, hit Tuesday morning.)

The prevalence of these tags has long puzzled nonblack observers and sparked lots of sometimes uncomfortable questions about "how black people use Twitter." As the Awl's Choire Sicha wrote last fall, "At the risk of getting randomly harshed on by the Internet, I cannot keep quiet about my obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter, an obsession I know some of you other white people share, because it is awesome."

As a nonwhite person, I must concur: It is awesome—although I'm less interested in the content of these tags than in the fact that they keep getting so popular. What explains the rise of tags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble? Are black people participating in these types of conversations more often than nonblacks? Are other identifiable groups starting similar kinds of hashtags, but it's only those initiated by African-Americans that are hitting the trending topics list? If that's true, what is it about the way black people use Twitter that makes their conversations so popular? Then there's the apparent segregation in these tags. While you begin to see some nonblack faces after a trending topic hits Twitter's home page, the early participants in these tags are almost all black. Does this suggest a break between blacks and nonblacks on Twitter—that real-life segregation is being mirrored online?

After watching several of these hashtags from start to finish and talking to a few researchers who've studied trends on Twitter, I've got some potential answers to these questions. Black people—specifically, young black people—do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service. 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.

There are loads of caveats to this analysis, which I'll get to in a moment. But first, a digression into one of the leading explanations for these memes—the theory that the hashtags are sparked by something particular to black culture. "There's a long oral dissing tradition in black communities," says Baratunde Thurston, the Web editor of the Onion, whose funny presentation at this year's South by Southwest conference, "How To Be Black Online," argued that blacktags were a new take on the Dozens. "Twitter works very naturally with that call-and-response tradition—it's so short, so economical, and you get an instant signal validating the quality of your contribution." (If people like what you say, they retweet it.)

To me, the Dozens theory is compelling but not airtight. For one thing, a lot of these tags don't really fit the format of the Dozens—they don't feature people one-upping one another with witty insults. Instead, the ones that seem to hit big are those that comment on race, love, sex, and stereotypes about black culture. Many read like Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck …" routine applied to black people—for instance, last December's #ifsantawasblack (among the tamer contributions: "#ifsantawasblack he wouldnt say ho ho ho, he would say yo yo yo") or July's #ghettobabynames (e.g., "#ghettobabynames Weavequisha.") The bigger reason why the Dozens theory isn't a silver bullet is that a lot of people of all races insult one another online generally, and on Twitter specifically. We don't usually see those trends hit the top spot. Why do only black people's tweets get popular?

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