Hooray for Twitter’s Black Tilt

Just as African Americans have influenced language and style, they've "blackened up" Twitter -- 140 snappy and irreverent characters at a time.


Twitter’s black tilt is wonderful. The big story is not that it’s sketchy to even notice it. Nor is the big story that the general level of “blacktags” is not that of a graduate seminar. The big news is that America is talking black.

There is so much good about this that it’s hard to know where to start. First, there is the constant well of verbal creativity. It’s not writing, by a long shot. But that’s not the point. Not all that we write is actually writing. This is why worries about what email and blogging are doing to “writing” are misplaced; emailing is speech, except with the fingers. Waiting for written standards in emails is like criticizing Prince for not using the viola.

Twitter is more of this written speech, and even more like speech in its restriction to 140 characters — casual speech comes in packets of seven to 10 words. Twitter is now home to dazzlingly articulate speech, and if that’s by more black people proportionately than we might expect, then even better. Take this one noted in the New York Times: “Looking Forward to a Cup of Cherry Kool-Aide *Sips* .. Its Watermelon # moodkiller.”

Heavens! Inappropriate capitals, no apostrophe in “its,” funky punctuation. No, no — we must expand our sense of what language is. The caps put a theatrical frame around the scene. The asterisks are straight out of a comic book and convey vivid reality; if it’s deep when Chris Ware does it in a graphic novel, why do we want to throw a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves at this writer (I mean, talker)?

And even the missing apostrophe — it conveys that this is a real person living and talking, quite germane to this willfully humble little scene. Even if she left the apostrophe out by accident — and probably did — I, if “editing” the Tweet, would make sure it stayed out. This is a kind of art. Twitter means black people being articulate with one another, live, nationwide and 24-7. I say yes.

Another thing: Remember the idea that black America was getting left on the wrong side of the digital divide? Have you noticed that this has started to sound a little “10 years ago”? Twitter can be seen as the official end of this take on black America. I will never forget an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1999 that earnestly argued that technology has not been black people’s friend, and history has made us shy of it. Even then, the legions of black people cherishing their VCRs and Discmans would have been surprised at this gloomy conclusion.

But black Americans were indeed getting online less quickly than whites. Economics had a lot more to do with this than culture, and we’ve come a long way since then — laptop ownership is now about even among the races. And now we have a concrete smackdown to the notion that there is, or ever was, something anti-technological in being black in the 21st century. With Twitter we have something quite “technological” that black people are more into than anyone else.

And finally, not only are black people using Twitter a lot, but the black comedy style and phraseology of the hashtags is calling the tune to a considerable extent, catching on among all Twitter users. This is part of something that has happened over the past 20 years and is little remarked upon: the browning of American language.