The Twitter Facts of Life

“You take the good/You take the bad/You take them both/And there you have/The Facts of Life”


Usual disclaimer: this may meander.

I was born short and never really grew out of it. I also spent all my years as an only child in a relatively stable, quiet little household. We didn’t always have a television so it wasn’t unusual for my family to be sprawled out in the living room, each of us silently reading — together but alone. I liked it.

But imagine my shock when it came time to go to a place called School.

My mom and dad walked me to some pre-k place in Queens or maybe Manhattan. I just remember crossing all the busy street corners holding both of their hands.

When we got to this place, my father bent down to my height and issued one of his infamous commandments: “Remember, your name is TRESSIE; not Tracy or Teresa. Make sure they call you by your name.”

I nodded all solemnly like I knew what the hell he was talking about. Then we walked into a room full of humans. I stood there as what felt like a hundred eyes, many of them from above but some at and below, peered at me with curiosity. It was more people than I’d ever seen in one place in my short life. Freaked me out. I immediately threw my new nap mat over my head and sat in a corner until my mother came to get me.

A few decades later, I was applying to Fancy Fellowship to work on digital media. I had some ideas for projects but I was adamant about one thing: I would NOT write about “black twitter”. I’d write about anything but Black Twitter, which I’ve called an affective decentralized socio-linguistic online collective.  Other, smarter, people have even better definitions. Look them up.

Twitter can feel a lot like walking into that kindergarden. And when you decide to study the thing that studies you, it’s a lot of eyes. Some stare from above, a few right at you, some below but all peering at and through you.

No, thank you.

But, like taxes, avoiding Black Twitter as a black person who uses social media is a fool’s errand. It is there. Most people agree it is real, even if there isn’t agreement about what it is or how it functions or even if it should be real and functioning.

The thing about existing is that eventually people notice. When some of those people ask systematic questions for a living, sometimes a thing becomes an object of study.

Thus, some people endeavor to study black twitter.

This is where it can get sticky, as a researcher at USC discovered today.

I’m loathe to screencap and go into details. That’s why you won’t see links or the researcher’s name in this post. There’s a fine line between responding to events and forcing them into perpetuity. But I don’t know another way to recognize that something has happened. All I can do is try to not veer into objectification.

I will try.

I am bedridden at the moment so I stare at my phone a lot. This morning I was staring as someone tweeted about a study at USC on Black Twitter. The tweet said something like, “look at three white men chosen to study black twitter!” There was a picture and I recognized one of the white men in question.

I also recognized the study.

I’ve been in the research field of late and the study has crossed my field of awareness. I knew of it, knew some of the people attached and know of the program in question.

So, I also knew that a black woman was lead investigator on that study.

In the time it took me to click the link, read the study blurb in question, go to the bathroom and commence to staring at my phone my twitter timeline was hopping.

Users were appalled at Black Twitter being put before the white gaze for scientific inquiry.

That concern comes from a deep place, a particular social location.

Disposable populations are always victims of unethical research.

For as long as we’ve been in this version of the “new world”, black folks have been deemed a disposable population. Ipso facto, black folks have often and systematically been used, mistreated, victimized, discarded, mutilated, and murdered for the sake of positivist science.

And I’m not just talking way back in the olden days.

I’m talking my grandmother, whom I knew all my life until five years ago being forcibly sterilized like untold and uncounted other black women in this country.

There’s Tuskegee, of course. But we also owe the modern science (to the extent that it is modern; I happen to think forceps are barbaric and if more men had uteruses we’d have innovated Dr. Crushers’ scanner-thingy by now) of gynecology to the abuse of enslaved black women.

But that’s PHYSICAL science, medical and biological you might say. Trust me, social science has been just as destructive.

Social scientists have manipulated reality, caused emotional and mental harm with few consequences, on numerous marginalized groups. I study one of the most destructive systems of higher education ever devised and there’s plenty of social science saying it is good for black people. That social science becomes policy, which becomes our reality.

Trust me, the risk is real.

So, when black folks hear about white people doing science ON us, in any context, the reaction is grounded in a context that makes our resistance more than reasonable.

I’m with you.

But the reason this link was “just dropped”, as one high profile Tweeter put it, wasn’t a concern about the ethics of research but about the persons conducting the research.

That is also fair. It’s also grounded in a context that makes it reasonable. White folks tended to be the ones doing the science on us.  But that concern isn’t impervious to facts.

And the fact was that a black woman doctoral student was and is conducting this study of black twitter.

So, if the concern was about white researchers and it turns out the researcher is black you can go a couple of ways. You can revise your concerns, issue a mea culpa and keep it moving. Or, you can pretend that bit of information wasn’t at all relevant to the concern, the one we can read right there on your twitter page, and continue disparaging the work.

No, a black woman as the principal investigator doesn’t make the ethical questions of informed consent to use social media data go away. But, the concern is grounded in two implicit claims to history and context: white people do this thing and white people have done this thing on us. If that’s the claim, then changing the actors might cause us to reconsider perspective, intent and context. For the most part, today Twitter chose the “eff facts, go hard” route.

Of course, if the very act of studying any group is the issue then that’s a different matter. But, I didn’t see that claim being made.

Black folks have certainly made the claim that research matters, even when we rejected science’s claims about blackness.

Black folks have a history of recognizing the power of knowledge to legitimate and perpetuate heinous socio-political acts. That’s why black students and black non-students demanded more black folks in the academy. It’s why they set it off, demanding more black tenured professors and more black studies departments and more money for black people to be included in the canon.

The institution was and is corrupt but barring a coup of the most powerful nation in the world, activists said at minimum let’s exert some autonomy over this here “science” that’s used to justify our inherent inferiority.

It was not a perfect deal but by nature of being a “deal”, no deal ever is.

And while I’m sensitive to the desire to burn capitalism to the ground (trust me, I am so here for it), we have found that’s a hard row to hoe.

Like most groups across time and contexts, we make trade-offs in the pursuit of progress, however we define it from one era to the next. Black academics studying black social phenomena is a deal we made.

The black researcher at USC is a product of that deal. All of us black folks in the academy are. Some of us take the task more seriously than do others, but as we like to say, black folks aren’t a monolith.

The researcher in question may not care about the ethics of social media consent. She may be dedicating her whole career to it. None of us knew the difference when that tweet went out and few of us went looking for the truth after it did.

As the truth about the ownership of the study came to light, it was too late.

There was a hashtag and an emotionally provocative narrative with some of our favorite characters: The White Man, Power, and Privilege.

There was no room in that narrative for a black woman, even if she was at the center of the truth.

So, by and large, folks on Twitter ignored her.

The criticism quickly moved from that of white men doing the study to the “ethics” of epistemologies not grounded in the “community” of “struggle”.

That was retrospective rationalization. I’d add it was also one without any evidence. We don’t know that woman’s community or struggle. Folks started re-writing their concerns to fit the facts they liked and to justify why they need not engage with the facts that were inconvenient.

In the process, the black woman was erased as surely as she was from that web page that promoted HER project without her face.

People have asked if Black Twitter is a moment or a movement; a bully pulpit or a cabal of bullies.

The answer is, yes.

From my perch in the corner under my nap mat, it seems to me that Black Twitter is all of those things. Why wouldn’t it be?

The nature of groups of people meeting at the apex of interest convergence is to solidify an identity, to constantly calibrate it’s group power, and to unleash it periodically to maintain its efficacy.

That is to say, that Black Twitter being a complicated, beautiful, messy, destructive, edifying collectivity is right in line with what all collectivities are.

There are good people who do and say bad things.

There are bad people who do and say good things.

There are hashtags that save lives.

There are hashtags that destroy livelihoods.

That’s what groups are.

If black twitter weren’t all of that, it would be the first time in recorded human history. And it would be worth documenting.

I did not want to do a project on Black Twitter because the only story, empirical or fanciful, I know how to tell is the complicated one.

It’s the one where we aren’t all descendants of Nubian Kings and we aren’t all social justice warriors in the trenches.

It’s the story of how we sometimes suss out the truth that the mainstream media finds inconvenient and how we sometimes ignore the inconvenient truth when we’d rather play the dozens.

I don’t study Black Twitter but there are some serious scholars with serious chops who do.

One of them got dragged today, erased in the name of black love and identity because it was easier and more fun to pretend she didn’t exist.

Some people argue that she has done her research the “wrong” way. That may be true but as sure as I walked in that room on the first day of kindergarden and whispered “Tressie” when the teacher called me “Tracie”, I know that most of the folks who decided the research was wrong today didn’t know shit from shinola.

They couldn’t have based on a blog post.

But that didn’t stop Twitter users who have done amazing work from jumping into the fray before they knew what was what.

It didn’t stop powerful Twitter accounts, the blue check warriors, from spilling that tea and then dashing to their next obligation.

It didn’t stop users with tens of thousands of followers from creating a narrative about a graduate student’s work before she has even finished the project.

A couple years ago Naomi Schaefer Riley took to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education to mock the dissertation titles of black PhD students.

I called her out on that.

I said it was an abuse of power. I said it was irresponsible and reckless and the possible good far outweighed the harm. Like Institutional Review Boards, the ones created in the shadow of the black lives destroyed for science, I think the social good should outweigh foreseeable risks.

There were a few risks here. There was the perceived risk of Black Twitter being defined without centering black voices and black researchers. And then there was the risk of erasing a black woman conducing the research, rewriting her research narrative, diffusing that narrative through powerful twitter accounts and a quasi-news website.

You may decide these risks are totally worth the actions taken. I want only to be explicit about them.

I also want to add another layer of context.

There isn’t a lot of money for black scholars to conduct research on their own communities or lived experiences. There’s a reason for that and it’s pretty much the same reason that black people more often end up research subjects than research agents.

There are not a lot of black scholars to do that work. Again, there’s a reason for that. It’s the same reason that black people more often end up research subjects than research agents.

There aren’t a lot of counter narratives to the dominant one of our “gaps”, “inequalities”, “deficits” and so on. There’s a reason for that. It’s the same reason that black people more often end up research subjects than research agents.

There are, however, numerous agents using social media and online activity to reconstitute everything from what credit card offers you get in the mail to what jobs you qualify for. They are not playing with us. This is not a game and the stakes are higher than Scandal and easily as high as the extrajudicial murder of black children. Anything that inserts the black lived experience into this brave new frontier of historical iterations of inequality and marginalization is worth considering. There is a reason that, to date, few scholars have considered it. It’s the same reason that black people more often end up research subjects than research agents.

I don’t know how to up-end this except to burn it to the ground, which again, I’m always here for.

All I know is that crowds and intentions can turn on a dime and sometimes, like when they are erasing people who look like you or they call you by the wrong name, you can choose to not turn with them.




14 thoughts on “The Twitter Facts of Life

  1. Wow.

    I am just this observer on the outside. I don’t understand, I don’t even attempt to, I don’t even think I can fairly be called an ally or a friend or anything of the sort.

    I just recognize remarkable writing when I see it. This is remarkable writing, and it makes me feel a very real struggle, and mourn.

  2. Tressie,

    Your writing is powerful and I’m glad you’re talking about this. I’m finishing coding a set of data and interviews that can’t wait so I can’t really comment at length. But the thing I tend to do, personally, is always side with the student. Because as a professor, I am in a position where I can exert my agency to empower/bring things to light/shine light on marginalized issues. This student is doing good work doing her best to bring (in my opinion), agency to those who may be marginalized. I may be rambling and not exactly centered in my analysis, but the word agency keeps coming up in my thoughts.

    As always, great work.

  3. I read your article before encountering the woman’s post in her own defense among the freshly pressed items and you really helped my understanding of what is going on… I might not have understood the intensity without your writing. I don’t follow twitter or have twitter and when I’ve been directed to it, I have felt like backing out as soon as I’d arrived for many reasons, most of which have to do with not understanding the context… and i’m impatient with things lacking context. I’ll be the one late for the revolution because I wasn’t up on the “feed” I guess. The interrelated-topics you reveal in this article, cautionary and otherwise, are very meaningful to my learning. Thank you.
    I hope you’re up and out of bed soon and feeling better. 🙂

  4. Well done, and thank you for your insights. We are a complex and sometimes contradictory people, “There’s a reason for that. It’s the same reason that black people more often end up research subjects than research agents.” Keep writing ~ ~in solidarity.

  5. There is a lot to say here, and you’ve said so much already. But one thing that pops into my head is that the road this young scholar has been traveling on is so hard already, and the response does nothing to make that easier, and if you are a person thinking about traveling that road and you see this and you see that even the community you hope will have your back does not have your back…maybe that’s one more reason you decide not to take that road and instead to find another road where at least you feel safe somewhere.

  6. Thank you for an amazing piece that was at once nuanced and articulate, firm but kind. It’s a remarkable essay and I hope you submit it to Chronicle or another wider forum. I came out of the same PhD program as the researchers at the center of this debacle. It’s difficult watching these people you know and respect get raked through the mud because somebody in the university’s PR machine was careless and mistaken in their portrayal of who leads the project and what it is about. As a minority PhD myself, I think it must feel terrible to be doubly erased from your own work – first by the university and then by the community – and then to have it shoved under a microscope. One thing I think a lot of people don’t realize is that most social science academics do try incredibly hard to do ethical research. While corporations are using private data and conducting online experiments in ways our IRBs would NEVER approve, we are socialized in the ethics of research, taught about Tuskegee, urged to treat our communities of practice with respect. Some fail but many more are trying harder than you know to do it right. The black twitter study draws on publicly available data published for the world to see on one of the most visible social media platforms. Yet people are saying the researchers should have sought permission from every commenter whose post made it into their dataset. Nevermind that Facebook, Yelp, Wikipedia, OkCupid, Kickstarter have all released datasets to academia too. It feels like an attack not just on this study but on academic research. period.

    1. I worry about a future (present??) wherein all the social media data is privately owned, marginalized people use private media like the public square, and all non-white scholars have been told that they cannot study a social phenomena. It’s how we get horribly destructive social policy and politics.

  7. I think that this situation says MOUNDS about what academia asks us to do to ourselves and each other in order to be “successful.” The language they used, no matter who wrote it, is disgusting. So, I’ll have to disagree with Tressie here about needing to revise our attitude about the whole thing. There’s a power dynamic there that Tressie is refusing to see about the relationship of academia to its subjects as a type of succubus. We are not obligated to support Black folks in positions of power when they do fucked up things just because they are Black, even if they are women. I am in a field where I am one of very few Black women, so I am sympathetic to the struggle. But if you start writing words that sound like they come from the mouths of white men, and not just because of the vocabulary but because of what you choose to say, there’s a problem. The pressure is fierce, but we always have a choice. The choices made here were not great. I hope very much that the PI finds some support to step outside of her own perspective on this so that she can see what it looks like from the other side. We always have a choice, even if it’s the hard one.

    1. I am not “refusing to see” power relations. I am, indeed, refusing to see a single axis of power. It’s reductive and usefully mostly as a political/rhetorical tool. As an analytical tool single dimensions of power are rarely as elucidating as their emotional appeal suggests. I was and am pretty clear about my issues with the research design and research ethic. However, there is little evidence that almost any of those who condemned the project knew anything about either. It’s disingenuous to rewrite the history of how the events played out. The initial concern was that the project was being led by three white men. When it was found to be different, the most vocal detractors refused to acknowledge how this might shift their critique. I’d say that is also a type of power abuse, which was enacted by those with greater attention platforms, embeddedness in mainstream media outlets and the like. All the users on twitter, even many who are black, are not powerless. Some have fancy blue check marks, which are as Weberian a status bauble as they come. Others are embedded in institutions as problematic as academia. And yet others traffic in tens of thousands of dedicated viewers. Those are all forms of power. There is no single axis of power in social media and black users are not uniformly condemned to lacking all forms of power/status. In this case, those variations mattered.

  8. And my soul sighed and exhaled, simultaneously!

    If this is meandering, you should do this often. As a black woman on Twitter, in varying forms since 2008, I can relate to so much of what you’ve laid out so eloquently. I’d love to see a study done on the “dance” of walking the line between your peers, your local community, and the pressure to be in and of the greater black “community” on Twitter. Often this semblance of community is not really much of a community except when united in dismay over varying injustices. I’m not knocking the validity of the concerns, but rather am intrigued by so-called moments of unity that, outside of the moment at hand, do not exist on Twitter (or elsewhere online).

    Many do not notice that there are many varied subsets within the so-called Black Twitter community (the musicians, the fashionistas, the entrepreneurs, the journalists, the artists, the athletes, the soccer moms, the retired grandparents, the educators, the list goes on and on….). Imagine that. Just like real life.

    Twitter reflects back to us, so much of what we refuse to see in the “real world.” In this instance, doubly so. Excellent piece. Thanks.

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