Signal Boost: The Black Twitter Theory

signal boost bird

**My apologies, but this post requires a little bit of a detour through physics. It’s been a while since I slept through Professor Oyedeji ‘s intro class, so please let me know if I’m wrong, if something is missing, or if you can add something to the analogy that makes it better:

The amplitude of a wave can be loosely thought of as the “bigness” of a wave from top to bottom. It’s easily visualized in water waves, where a really big wave has a higher amplitude than a really small one. In sound waves, amplitude is the loudness of the sound. In a light wave, amplitude informs about its intensity or brightness. An amplifier is in the most literal sense an object that increases the amplitude of a wave. It boosts the signal or source into something more intense. Light waves become laser beams. Sound from a couple guitars fills arenas. Amplification is a scientific phenomenon that impacts our daily lives and that we understand intuitively, but can what relation does it have to the topic at hand?**
Social Amplification
Basically, the specifics of wave dynamics and amplification apply almost perfectly to social media and explain the power of “Black Twitter,” which is the subject of articles like this good one and this terrible one. This post is meant as a companion piece to those. While they do a great job describing what Black Twitter is and why it matters, there’s not much theory as to why it does what it does and what that means. My theory is that Black Twitter is a great example of what I call “social amplification,” something that we understand intuitively in our usage of terms like “signal-boosting” and influence metrics on twitter analytics and Klout. But the analogy holds at much more than just a surface level. In special times, Black Twitter is so influential because of its amplitude; literally because it is so loud. Since Black Twitter still comprises a minority of both tweets and tweeters, there must be underlying mechanisms that allow for the outsized influence. Something about Black twitter makes it a natural amplifier. The sound from a couple guitars fills arenas.
At its most basic, amplification requires two things: more signal and similarity of that signal, referred to here as harmony (it’s a blog, I’m allowing myself some looseness of definitions). Both things are important. Guitar amps increase the power of sound captured in current by adding similar electrical current but noise cancellation technology does so often by blasting almost directly opposite signals. At its most basic, we hear it in choirs. Good choirs amplify the sound of one voice’s notes far beyond its reach in harmony. Bad choirs make a louder overall sound, but drown out the desirable single signal with noise. An ideal amplifier intensifies the signal greatly without adding noise.
What makes Black Twitter special?
At most times, Black Twitter, like most of Twitter is noisy. In fact, it’s probably more noisy than other sub-populations. We tweet a lot, a WHOLE lot, and we often tweet about a lot of different things (although they may be cyclical in nature). This creates cacophony, and usually results in the bickering we often see when Black Twitter is not in “engaged mode.” But we also form very tight-knit groups (aided by our status as the minority) and share information willingly (sometimes too willingly). We are likely to form personal bonds or friendships and even expand real-life networks based on Black Twitter interactions. Slang changes fast, and sometimes whole conversations are incoherent to outsiders. I have a friend who likens Black Twitter to the tight networks of slave communications networks and code-talking. I’m inclined to agree, especially given how we delight in adding thin layers of code to communications just to confuse, at times.
These characteristics make it so much easier for Black Twitter to emerge from the noise and catch on to meaningful things and trends or create them. When something becomes “cool” or when someone with any amount of influence has an interest, it is easily spread to others, often like wildfire or a pathogen (the root of the word virality). The close, inclusive networks, shared experience and sheer amount of tweeting make virality easy. And when this happens, we can create a lot of signal with relatively little noise, by social media standards. The phenomenon of “Sharknado” took news outlets by storm as an example of virality, but we’re used to stuff like this. It’s how Lil Mason, Scandal, and Catfish became things. It seems our cultural memory is and has been particularly amenable to meme creation.

Lil Mason, God of Waves

So, what?
Aside from just being an intriguing social experiment or phenomenon, Black Twitter and its capacity for extraordinary signal-boosting are actually becoming part of the fabric of society. The aforementioned shows were made and succeeded because of the effect. Many others like Love & Hip-Hop succeed because of it. Also, many are launched with the intention of grabbing a hold of this virality and fail. Although Black folks have always had disproportionate influence on pop culture and entertainment, I don’t think we’ve seen a climate before where so many entertainment ventures depend on and appeal directly to our sense of  what’s cool. Sports teams, government agencies, and politicians have all tried their hand at riding this wave of Black Twitter social amplification to the top (and some have failed spectacularly).
But it goes beyond just entertainment. Social Amplification can actually create change, although out-of-touch skeptics disagree. Smart social media directors are justifiably wary of the ire of Black Twitter. Dumb ones ignore it at their own peril.  We’ve seen from folks like Paula Deen and other chastised publice figures that running afoul of Black Twitter can have very costly consequences, to the tune of millions. We’re also pretty good at policing our own. Just see Rick Ross. Just like the amplification of light waves into lasers, Black Twitter can be extremely destructive or constructive, depending on how you look at it. And I think this is just a glimpse of what it really can do.
The article that spurred this post focused on Black Twitter’s prominence in the issues around the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. From the media attention around Rachel Jeantel, to second-by-second analyses of the trial, to (largely answered) calls for peaceful protests at the outcome, to the remarkable take-down of an exploitative book deal from Juror B37 by sudden Twitter celebrity @MoreAndAgain, Black Twitter has been a key actor, and its Social Amplification has allowed for these things. There’s a pretty good argument that Black Twitter allowed for the case to even go to trial at all, after outrage was sparked by the refusal of Sanford’s police department to press charges. This is one of the first high-profile court cases digested primarily through social media over television, and it’s fitting that the impetus for the whole thing was Black Twitter. It’s an increasingly potent tool of social activism, and seriously concerted take-down efforts can be just as effective as boycotts of the past, with larger national impact and the ability for more people to participate.
Instead of organizing sit-ins at Woolworths, Black Twitter and its capacity for signal-boosting can find those guilty of injustice (and it WILL find you) and can broadcast and shame them ad infinitum. It can ratchet up economic pressure on them and cause massive hemorrhaging of support, endorsements, and most importantly, money. An instant campaign of outrage against Paula Deen cost her tens of millions of dollars, more than whole cities in the South stood to lose during the bus boycotts in the Civil Rights movement. I have reason to believe that it can do more and that it can be used to challenge government structures and places of power to be better. Not as the sole tool of social change, but as a new tool unique to us in an evolving toolkit. We’ve already seen examples around the globe where social media has been used to spark sweeping change. Black Twitter has the power, and it’s a power aided by a unique ability to preserve, strengthen, and broadcast the messages of those who would have had no real outlets in the past. Maybe one day down the road when folks are naming roads after our generation’s Civil Rights leaders, a few of them will have @s in them. Who knows?
One Response to “Signal Boost: The Black Twitter Theory”
  1. You know, this idea is actually present in international development as well. It piggy backs off the aversion of our society’s blatant dogmatism for the positivity towards technological progress. In our free-market culture we use technology as one of the main arguments for the social and economic betterment of society. When coupled with the collective sentiment of want for the ‘next big thing,’ close to the point where it seems we as a culture deserve technological progress, many folks depend on technology as the fix for our generation.

    However, certain scholars disagree. An example includes Kentaro Toyama, who has worked in information and communication development for international development (the same field which made the One Laptop Per Child movement such a big deal). He argues for amplification; if a technology is put into an existing social infrastructure doomed to fail, it will increase the likelihood for failure. Same for success. The important idea, however, is that the technology amplifies the ecosystem around it.

    Check his TED talk here:

    The point I aim to make is the importance of other elements besides technology: the people, the inequity of certain communities obtaining and designing said technologies, and the structure of other variables (economic, social, policy, etc.) outside of said system. But I’m just brainstorming.

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