The Secret Power Of Black Twitter

Last night Black Twitter killed a George Zimmerman trial juror’s book deal. But that’s not a surprise: The hive has become a swarm. It’s diffuse, powerful, and all around you.

Last night, just hours after news broke that as-yet-unidentified “Juror B37” from the George Zimmerman trial had found a book agent, the agent decided to drop her. Shortly after dropping the budding author, the agent, Sharlene Martin, released a statement from Juror B37 that said she wouldn’t write the book after all: Being sequestered had “shielded me from the depth of pain that exists among the general public over every aspect of this case.”

If only Juror B37 had turned to Black Twitter before deciding to cash in.

Because Black Twitter watchers know the power of the swarm. That obsessive and focused online conversation has gone from being a source of entertainment — and outside curiosity — to a cultural force in its own right. Black Twitter began making jokes at Paula Deen’s expense in order to keep from crying — but ultimately drove the narrative around her and sped her demise. Black Twitter put the ABC show Scandal at the center of the elite conversation. Now, black folks on Twitter aren’t just influencing the conversation online, they’re creating it.

If you’ve been following the Trayvon Martin case from the beginning, you might remember that almost no one was following the Trayvon Martin case from the beginning. Martin was killed on Feb. 26, 2012. Two weeks later, the Sanford, Florida, police turned the case over to the state, but it was six weeks before Zimmerman was charged with the death. Outrage bubbled up from Twitter and Facebook before the case crossed any national news desks.

Black Twitter is, loosely speaking, a group of thousands of black Twitterers (though, to be accurate, not everyone within Black Twitter is black, and not every black person on Twitter is in Black Twitter) who a) are interested in issues of race in the news and pop culture and b) tweet A LOT.

The Martin case has remained in the back of the Black Twitter hivemind since Zimmerman’s arrest. And when the trial began in June, the constant hum grew as everyday people turned to the livestream and tweeted what they saw. My own Twitter timeline showed the disconnect clearly: Generally speaking, people of color were tweeting about the trial, white folks weren’t. In fact, it seemed like the Zimmerman trial wasn’t really on the mainstream Twitter radar until Black Twitter’s conversations about witness Rachel Jeantel became too numerous to go unnoticed. (Biracial Olympian Lolo Jones’ mean-spirited joke about Jeantel might have even been the bridge.)

After that, just about everyone had a think piece on Jeantel’s treatment on the stand and her testimony.

But back to last night.

Twitter user Genie Lauren — better known to her followers as @moreandagain — created a petition that garnered about 1,300 signatures. But the real work was done on Twitter. Along with Lauren, Black Twitter went on the offensive, barraging Juror B37’s book agent with tweets.

@djolder maybe @SharleneMartin will use the blood money she earns off a dead teen's body to update her website finally.

— tnwhiskeywoman (@Nichole)

Think everyone should let @sharlenemartin know how disgusting and inappropriate the book, deal and her representing it is!

— LastNameMorris (@Theezy Gillespie)

Lol @sharlenemartin 's mentions are in shambles. No ethics will do that.

— CiaraImani (@Cici)

Et cetera.

Lauren told NewsOne in an interview, “I was shocked because I didn’t think the response from other Tweeters would happen so quickly. I thought that even if we got 1,000 signatures that I would hear something like, ‘Sorry you feel this way but we’re stilling going ahead with this book.’ I really didn’t expect for this to happen like this so quickly.”

Instead, Sharlene Martin messaged Lauren directly, and proceeded to announce that she was dropping Juror B37 and that the juror was abandoning the idea of a book altogether. (And now, Lauren tweets, she’s been booked on Good Morning America, while we still don’t know who B37 is.)

@MoreAndAgain we're all in this together. gotta keep applying pressure wherever and whenever we can.

— TiporTiff (@Tip Her)

But if you weren’t awake last night to watch all of this go down on Twitter, chances are you’ve seen a Black Twitter swarm or two, even if you didn’t know it.

Last month, one-woman food empire Paula Deen admitted in a deposition to using the n-word. Black Twitter quickly jumped on the news with the #paulasbestdishes hashtag. Originating with my pal @brokeymcpoverty and some of her followers, some of the tweets were so funny, I was in tears.

OMG. Genius. lol! RT @realifecitygirl: #PaulasBestDishes Whistlin' While They Work Watermelon Fruit Salad

— slb79 (@stacia l. brown)

all of the tears. RT @Rebel_Salute You Hear White Folk Talkin You Better Hushpuppies #PaulasBestDishes

— brokeymcpoverty (@Brokey McPoverty)

beef "you speak so" wellington #PaulasBestDishes

— desusnice (@Desus)

And by the end, they’d gone so viral, (some) white folks were weighing in.

I have found my liberal-white-guilt sweet spot and it is admiration for #PaulasBestDishes coupled with complete inability to retweet.

— MarkHarrisNYC (@Mark Harris)

Some of My Best Friends are Black-Eyed Peas. #PaulasBestDishes

— mattzollerseitz (@Matt Zoller Seitz)

But if you’re looking for the perfect example of Black Twitter taking over your timeline, look no further than ABC’s megahit Scandal. Among black Nielsen viewers, it’s the highest-rated show (BET is riding its coattails with a syndication deal inked this week), and in social media, Scandal dominates Thursday nights — no other scripted show generates as many tweets. Or, going by my own Facebook, as many outraged status messages. Black Twitter has pulled along its white friends, bringing them into the fold through sheer force of will.

Of course, plenty has been written about the virality of Black Twitter. Years ago, I responded to this piece in Slate by Farhad Manjoo about how black people use Twitter. At the time, I objected to the success of Black Twitter being presented as some code to crack — and I still do. Black Twitter’s power makes perfect sense — as long as you don’t consider black Twitterers to be some mysterious “other” group. And in the time since, as Twitter has grown and become more central to daily conversation, the influence of its pigeonholed groups has also grown exponentially. Today, Black Twitter is no longer something you can only find if you know where to look. It’s permeating your timeline, even if you don’t know it.

Which, strangely enough, is a lot like the relationship black culture has to American culture.

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Shani Hilton is Executive Editor, News for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Shani O. Hilton at
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