In Reply: My Reflections on Comments About Our Research on Black Twitter

This morning, I woke up to a number of tweets concerning the research on Black Twitter I’ve undertaken with a team of researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. For a run-down on the situation, please see The Root’s coverage. It’s been less than a day, and I am still processing and getting to the bottom of this situation, but I wanted to share my initial response.

Let me start out by clearing a few things up:

1. The project is lead by me, was devised by me, and contributes to my dissertation. There are others involved: my faculty sponsor, Professor Francois Bar, and two other doctoral students, Kevin Driscoll and Alex Leavitt, along with many other undergraduate and masters students who have participated in various ways. Like everyone else, I was surprised to see that my contributions to this project were minimized. This is no fault of my immediate team members. They have advocated my place as the originator of the idea for the research, and supported my position as the first author on all the work we have done. I have not been given a satisfying explanation for how this happened, but trust me, no one was more upset than I was.

2. I did not approve the description of the project that was on the Annenberg Innovation Lab website. It does not fully encapsulate the scale, methods, or full reasoning behind the project.

3. No one is making money. I receive a research assistantship from USC, which in turn receives funding to pay for these scholarships from various foundations, corporations, and other sponsors. But, I am a scholar, and my goal is to create anti-racist research that contributes to Black pedagogy and public life.

4. There are as yet no solidified “results” from this research. It is very much still in progress. This is not an easy topic to study, and I wanted to make every effort to avoid exploitation, inaccuracy, and misrepresentation of Black Twitter itself. I’d hoped to be able to take my time in publishing our findings. I have presented my work as part of a panel of other scholars at the International Communication Association conference earlier this year, and I am in the process of generating a manuscript for publication.

My research grew out of frustration. In academic scholarship the discussion around the representation of Black women in media often focuses on the pervasiveness of racist and sexist stereotypes. What is often left out of the conversation is how Black people actually consume, interpret, and deal with these representations. The way we make meaning from or interpret television is multilayered, complex, and sometimes contradictory.  For more on this, see my previous blog post.

One of the places that I observed and participated in public debate about media representations of Black women was on Twitter while watching the show “Scandal.” “Scandal” is the first network television show in nearly 40 years to feature a Black female lead, and it was created by a Black woman. On Thursday nights, when “Scandal” airs, Twitter gets real. Folks who are annoyed by the takeover of the site on Thursdays log off and express annoyance at having to do so. I say, their loss. Twitter functions as a public online forum for us to engage with people we know and don’t know. We often gain a sense of community from that engagement. We argue about Olivia’s love life, and embedded in those arguments is a larger debate about an important issue facing our community–how these representations inform others’ real-world perceptions of us.

In my dissertation research, I wanted to capture some of that experience. I wanted to build an archive of tweets myself, not rely on commercial data analytics companies to build it for me. I believe that this archive represents some of the ways we foster a sense of community, carve out a place to engage with other like-minded folk, advocate for change, and maybe most importantly, a way to build our sense of Black collective identity and politics. It may seem odd that live-tweeting about a television show can be about all of these things, but that really is what I see happening and it is a story that had not yet been told in existing scholarship.

Of course, Black Twitter is about a lot more than entertainment. We started with “Scandal,” but with my team I hoped to develop a methodology that could be used by myself or by other like-minded researchers to understand the full scope of Black Twitter and its capacity to benefit Black public life and articulate our perspectives on the society we live in. Black Twitter is a space for us to be heard, whether we’re discussing a television show,  the countless murders, harassment, and assault of Black men and women, or the everyday instances of racism and sexism that we experience, which go ignored and unacknowledged by others.  I want to write about it so that my students and future generations are able to read about it. I hope you all read it, too. And give me more critique.

I have been working to get to the bottom of how the misrepresentation of my work happened. I know that no one intentionally tried to do harm, but I am frustrated because this is indicative of the very same problems– erasure of Black people and their contributions– that my project is about. I am awe-struck (but not surprised) by the response from Black Twitter. People are angry, they are hilarious, they give a damn. Even though some are not tweeting in support of me, I count anyone who cares about Black voices and how they are represented as fighting the same battle I am. This has been a very difficult day for me, but it is one that I will continue to think about for the rest of my personal and professional life, one that has offered a story I hope to tell my future students. At the very least, I think I learned more about Black Twitter than I ever could have otherwise. So for that, I am thankful.