You know you’re spending too much time on Twitter when you start noticing the little games that people invent before all of your friends do. If you happened to be tooling around on the site on Sunday afternoon, you might have spotted a short-lived, explosive meme called “uknowurblackwhen.” As of around 6 p.m., a whopping 1.2 percent of all tweets were from people adding their own “You know you’re black when …” jokes to the thread.
A quick primer on how these games work: Twitter, the omnipresent microblogging site that restricts posts to 140 characters, has a built-in functionality for adding tags to a post to associate it with a trend. (This is accomplished by adding a hash mark and the name of the tag at the end of the tweet, like “#theroot.”) Companies often try to get people to add a certain hashtag when tweeting about their product, but it’s also useful for organic trends where people start a game—say, who can come up with the funniest name for a bad Western—and make up a hashtag for it so other people can play. Most of these would-be trends die on the vine, but every now and again, one strikes a nerve and goes viral.
The “#uknowurblackwhen” meme began with Ashley Weatherspoon, a recent NYU graduate in New York who had noticed a few other Twitter memes aimed primarily at black people. A few days earlier someone had started a #uknowufromqueens thread that had been reasonably popular, and there had been a small orbit of others—#uknowufrombk, #uknowufromdahood, and so forth. (Because people are not obligated to retype the exact same tag, these trends tend to morph as they go, so you often see duplicates using “ufrom” or “urfrom” in the construction.)
Weatherspoon, who has been on Twitter since January and already has over 10,000 followers—owing in part, surely, to the fact that Kim Kardashian once mentioned her in a tweet—says she had seen these earlier trends and was interested in trying to start one herself. “I knew that in order for the topic to trend, it would have to be something that a large majority of people could relate to,” she said in an e-mail. “I was on the train with a friend (another black woman) when a train conductor walked by and did something that ‘only black folks would do.’ We laughed, and I said ‘OMG! That’s the topic.’”
Weatherspoon inaugurated the content at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday with the tweet: “With that being said…. Let's start a topic & laugh at ourselves! Brooklyn repped, Queens repped…. Black folks? Let's go…. Lol.” She then posted the first entry to get it started: “#uknowurblackwhen u cancel plans when its raining.”
Within minutes, her friends started piping in. “#uknowurblackwhen you think tyler perry is a good actor,” one said. And another: “#uknowurblackwhen your mom rocks that #1Mom gold pendant on her figaro chain necklace.”
Like all viral trends, this one quickly slipped the bounds of Weatherspoon’s personal network and began to spread. That evening, it gained enough momentum to make the front page of the Twitter search Web site, at which point participation skyrocketed. Like all “you know you’re [insert here] when” humor, the contest succeeded on the strength of familiarity from the audience. Many of the entries were retweets—people who had reposted a favorite entry on their page as a vote of confidence. User Mika Martin perhaps put it best: “#uknowurblackwhen u hate stereotypes but seem to fit some of 'em.”
I haven’t been able to find any thorough studies of race or racial attitudes on Twitter—please e-mail me if you know of one—but the presence of trends like this one, however short-lived, suggest a strong, connected black community on the site. Quantcast, a Web analytics firm that estimates audience demographics, reports that 12 percent of Twitter’s visitors are African-American, though this could be inexact since many people access the site through third-party tools. A Pew Internet & American Life project study (PDF) found that “Twitter users are slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than is the full U.S. population, most likely because they are younger.” The fact that Twitter is so cell phone-friendly may factor in as well, since minorities tend to be strong adopters of mobile devices with Web access. Any way you spin it, mustering 1.2 percent of all tweets at a time—and that doesn’t count the spinoff hashtags that were spelled differently, like #uknowublackwhen—is a phenomenal feat. Particularly over Labor Day weekend, when there was plenty else to do; on Sunday afternoon in Washington, at least, it wasn’t even raining.
Chris Wilson is an assistant editor at Slate in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.