Between the Oscars this weekend, artists who held a concert in Flint about the water crisis and important conversations about race in the spotlight, a conference about Black Twitter is timely. Black Twitter has either initiated or promoted such conversations and has many times spurned activism around them.
The National Association of Black Journalists held its first Black Twitter conference at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on Saturday (#BlackTwitter16). Several hundred attendees came for the all-day event, from those who were immersed in this space to those who had heard a lot about it but were getting their first crash course in it.
The event included frequent Black Twitter users and Black Journalists who had covered the impact of this phenomenon. Some of the day was focused on understanding social media as a tool, while the other part was focused on social media as a force that has impacted activism and discussions about inequality. April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, was the keynote speaker. She explained the origins of the hashtag and how it amplified a decades-long discussion about diversity in Hollywood. Reign announced that she would not be watching the Oscars the next day, and instead would be doing a live tweet of the film ‘The Wood.’
While the discussions focused on the impact of Black Twitter, there were also observations about the nuances of the space. Sherri Williams, a professor at Wake Forest University, said that while she admires how Twitter has been used, she found it sometimes to be unfriendly and a difficult place to navigate. Rembert Browne of New York Magazine had a similar thought when describing how one’s ‘Blackness’ is sometimes questioned in this part of cyberspace. These observations are a reflection of life, on and off Twitter, but also highlight the complexities of a safe space such as Black Twitter.
Yet, in general, the day, which had some differing opinions and viewpoints, had more mutual understandings and people on the same page than not. In fact, throughout the day there was a common call for more communication between Black journalists and activists. Williams said that journalists covering Black Twitter need to “pick up the phone” and call the activists behind the handles. Black Lives Matter activist Nakisha Lewis and Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery said that journalists should make themselves accessible to Black Twitter and people in BLM, and to get to know the people being covered.
“The reason [activists] trusted me was that I was there when everybody was getting teargassed,” said Lowery, who covered the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.
Another topic discussed was how engaged journalists should be in this discussion if it is not their beat. Journalist Jozen Cummings who acutally works at Twitter asked if every Black journalist should be prepared to write about a topic, even if they may not have anything worthwhile to contribute. Charreah Jackson of Essence magazine thought that journalists do not have to necessarily report on Black Lives Matter or Black Twitter, pointing out how stories on ‘new’ fashion trends that have origins in the Black community can also factor into the discussion. Browne said that for him, his writing is his contribution, which prompted a piece of advice given out by nearly everyone: Be careful of what you tweet. “Don’t waste all of your fire thoughts on Twitter,” said Browne. “Save some of it for a story.”
Perhaps just as interesting as the conference was the discussion taking place on Twitter around the hashtag, #BlackTwitter16. With journalists and activists live tweeting from the conference, people followed along through the hashtag but also provided thoughtful resources, input and jokes. The hashtag for the conference also invited curiosity, people jumping in to promote themselves, and, of course, trolls throwing insults and race-baiting remarks.
Based on the activity of the hashtag, the turnout and how anticipated it was, it is fair to say that the Black Twitter conference was a success. There are as many think pieces about Black Twitter at this point as there are days in a year, so it is hard to say anything revelatory about it. But with everyone that it brought together, there is an argument for the significance of this gathering.
It was an event that was long overdue.