Author: digitalraces

#BroOcholla and The Commodification of Faux Pax

A screenshot of a WhatsApp group chat appeared in my Twitter timeline. The image (below)

This is a modified version where all personal identifying information is redacted. The original and most circulated version shows names and phone numbers of the group's members.
This is a modified version where all personal identifying information is redacted. The original and most circulated version shows names and phone numbers of the group’s members.

shows members of a Nairobi based prayer cell sending well wishes to a couple on their wedding anniversary via the prayer cell’s WhatsApp group. This flow of congratulatory texts is interrupted when a member, who is now known across the Kenyan Twittersphere as Bro Ocholla, sends a risqué message. Noting that Bro Ocholla’s apologies twice, once in English and then soon after in Kiswahili (“Poleni”), it is fair to say that it was not Bro Ocholla’s intent to sext his prayer cell members. The last visible message is a member expressing surprise (or potentially, disapproval – the exact meaning of “yawa” in this context gets lost in translation). What the prayer cell members do after this is not clear, however the fact that this exchange is now a subject of discussion on Twitter implies that at least one member of the WhatsApp group decided to capture Bro Ocholla’s mistake and circulate it outside the confines of the group. Within a matter of hours the question posed in a WhatsApp group chat (“Bro Ocholla?”) was been transformed into a hashtagged phrase (#BroOcholla) and subsequently a trending topic within the Kenyan Twittersphere. One of my many interests in #BroOcholla is how it helps me think about participation within spaces.

As a WhatsApp group message turned Twitter trending topic, #BroOcholla exemplifies those moments that call in to question the existence of separate online and offline spaces. It also raises questions regarding how public and private spaces are understood and negotiated. For instance to what extent (objectively and subjectively) is a WhatsApp group considered a private space? How, if at all, does the transference of a message between two separate WhatsApp groups differ say from the transference of a message from WhatsApp to Twitter? #BroOcholla also makes me think about the rules of participation within these spaces. While sexting does generate a degree of controversy, it is precisely because Bro Ocholla sent his message to a prayer cell chat group that his actions have received this level of attention. Now that the message is on Twitter, are there any cultural or social codes that dictate who can participate in the #BroOcholla conversation? It is in the midst of all these questions that I find myself drawn to the ways in which corporate Twitter accounts have engaged with #BroOcholla. I am interested in both how and why some companies have chosen to participate in these discussions. It is my view that there is an exploitative element to this corporate participation on the part of these companies as they seek to profit from an individual’s fallibility.

Among the first corporate tweets were from Durex (below), who arguably can make a connection between their product and #BroOcholla, albeit using their own tangential hashtags in the process.

Likewise it is possible to see why Safaricom (below) would choose to join the conversation. It is a mobile telecommunications provider, with an existing campaign that revolves around a set of fictional characters, including one who is a Christian and shares a name with a member of the #BroOcholla prayer cell. Accompanying Safaricom’s tweet is text that insinuates Bro Ocholla’s message was sufficiently inappropriate to warrant Betty’s departure from the WhatsApp group, presumably because she deems his actions as incompatible with her beliefs and/or the purpose of the group. The feelings of the WhatsApp group members, particularly in relation to their faith and the extent to which Bro Ocholla’s actions have caused offence (if at all) is not evident from the screenshot. The absence of this information becomes an opportunity for Safaricom to exploit as the company simultaneously promotes its services, vilifies Bro Ocholla and projects a particular and highly subjective moral perspective grounded in conservative Christian beliefs that considers sex a taboo.

DSTV’s connection (below) with #BroOcholla is perhaps one of the most tenuous, the company didn’t even seem to put too much effort into making its contribution relevant. The show being promoted by DSTV is about individuals who unsuccessfully engage in criminal activity. One could certainly argue that Bro Ocholla may have violated some cultural codes but he certainly was not trying to break any laws, so I am not sure what purpose DSTV’s tweet served beyond announcing its presence.

Other well-known companies, including Kenya Airways and KTN (a national television network), have also been tweeted in connection to #BroOcholla. From my (admittedly rather unscientific) observation there appears to be a formula to these corporate tweets. All the companies reference #BroOcholla in some capacity, use humour and then introduce a product or service and occasionally a hashtag of their own. Furthermore, none of the companies mention WhatsApp – despite the fact that this too was trending and is intrexicably linked to the #BroOcholla story. Perhaps, (and slightly cynically) this is because none of the corporations wish to inadvertently promote another (and in some cases competing) company. Of course this is not the first time that a company has used its Twitter account to engage with individuals in a humorous manner; Taco Bell, for instance has a reputation for doing this. The difference between Taco Bell and the companies participating in #BroOcholla is that Taco Bell often tweets in direct response to a Twitter use who has made reference to Taco Bell. What is happening in this instance is that companies are participating in a discussion that (1) originated in a different space (2) does not reference them, their products and/or services and (3) companies attempting to steer the conversation away from #BroOcholla and towards a different conversation/space.

The problematic nature of this sort of Twitter involvement on the part of corporations is captured in this tweet

For me, answering this question relies on a reconceptualisation of Twitter “as a linguistic marketplace where hashtags are a crucial currency, which enables visibility and projects potential interaction”(Page, 2012: p.184). There is therefore, from the perspective of the companies involved, value attached to this sort of interaction. Applying this specifically to #BroOcholla, these corporations are implicitly making a statement about the value of Bro Ocholla’s subjectivity and the cost of Bro Ocholla’s mistake, turning both into commodities that can be exchanged for increased visibility. This commodification comes at a cost to Bro Ocholla, in terms of his privacy, his identity and reputation. It also significantly and adversely affects the participatory aspects of hashtagged spaces by transforming these into promotional spaces. So a long with asking how companies are benefiting from all this, perhaps a better question would be, what precedent is being set when companies, can under the pretext of participation, seek to profit from personal and sometimes private blunders that occur in spaces that they are not explicitly part of?

From MSc to PhD

It really has been a while since I wrote here and a lot has happened.

I completed the MSc and graduated with a distinction.  I was also fortunate enough to be awarded a departmental Reid Scholarship by RHUL’s Geography Department.  This meant that that on August 31st I submitted my MSc dissertation and on September 22nd I was enrolled as postgraduate research student.

I barely had the time to catch my breath and the first term was really about adjusting and figuring out what was I doing.  As I approach the end of the second term I am feeling a lot more settled and and will hopefully be blogging a lot more.

Starting my fieldwork

I had to hold off on this blog for a little while as I awaited feedback and had all my risk assessments and ethics documentation signed off. This has finally happened and I am now into the research phase of my project.  This means that a number of things are now set in stone and this includes:

The Research Questions

The main question that my project intends to answer is from a Critical Race Theory perspective, what role if any, Black Twitter plays in the construction and performance of identity and representation among Black London-based non-African American Twitter user?

I am specifically interested in finding out the following

  • How do the research participants define Black Twitter?
  • How do the research participants engage (if at all) with Black Twitter?
  • In what other ways do the research participants perform and construct their identity on Twitter

 The research process

I will be conducting face-to-face interviews with 30 or so individuals between now and 11th July 2014.  I will also be undertaking a digital ethnographical study of participant tweets and twitter biographies.

The participants

I am interested in working with individuals who meet all of the following criteria

  • Self-identify as Black in accordance with the classification provided by the UK 2011 Census.  This classification includes those who self-identify as “Black/African/Caribbean/Black British or Any other Black/African/Caribbean background” (ONS, 2011).
Census 2011 Q16 option D
Research will study participants who would select Census 2011 Q.16 Option D
  • Reside in one of the 33 Boroughs of London
  • Have a personal Twitter account registered on or before 1st May 2013
  • Maintain an active presence of twitter as evidenced by volume of tweets/recent tweets

And if possible:

I am very excited about this stage and I can’t wait to start learning more about race, Twitter and identity. If you are interested in taking part and/or know anyone who would be interested in taking part then please either leave a comment below (be sure include your email) or drop me an email.

Black Twitter: My research questions and a working title

My dissertation proposal has finally been submitted, supervisor and advisor  allocated and now just waiting for feedback – so of course I expect some of the things I post below to change but so far this is what I am working with.

My working title is “Black Twitter” – A Critical Race Approach to Exploring Race and Racism Online.

My questions/objectives are:

  1. Why Black Twitter/Where is White Twitter?:  By framing Twitter as a racialised/White place I am interested in the the origin, evolution of Black Twitter and what its continued use as a marker of an online racialised space, especially given the ‘absence’ of a named “White Twitter”,  reveals about race and racism online.
  2. Black Twitter Membership: Unlike other social networking sites where one’s personal profile is the focus of interaction – on Twitter it is one’s tweets (i.e. the content of their Twitter message) that is central to the interaction.  In essence what is said, and possibly even how it is said on Twitter is (supposedly) considered more important than who said it.  I want to understand how the relationship between the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of tweets impacts Black Twitter inclusion and exclusion.  Is every black person on Twitter a member of Black Twitter by virtue of being black and on Twitter? Or is Black Twitter only for those who Tweet using ‘Black Tags’, and if so can a White person tweet within the space of Black Twitter?
  3. Universal Notion of Blackness? Given the global nature of  Twitter and the fact that the term Black exists both as a racial descriptor and a political term; I want to explore the perspectives of non-African-American Black Twitter users on Black Twitter.

And my theoretical framework, is of course Critical Race Theory (CRT) – especially three of CRT’s key elements: critiquing the notion of colour-blindness, essentialism, and counter-storytelling.

Methodology:  I am certainly a more qualitative than quantitative person and while I am not 100% of my methodology I would like to conduct in-depth twitter users who self identify as African, African-American, Black-African, Black-British, or Black-Caribbean.  There will also be Twitter analysis,  tracking trending topics and hashtags and possibly even some statistics.

Who knows where the feedback I receive will take me…but that is where I am at right now.

Monday Link Round Up: Rethinking Intersectionality, Politics of #Selfies, Racial difference in parental concerns about online safety and more…

Naomi Ortiz  on why intersectionality is like woven basket  (Feminist Wire)

Intersectionality is described by dominant culture as the location where all of our multiple identities intersect. However, my identities are not straight lines, which only intersect in one place. For me, intersectionality is more like living in multiple worlds at once.

Intersectionality is like a woven basket. Pieces of me are woven together holding my experiences in the world, my soul. This basket holds the essence of me, but is something that others cannot see. How can someone understand the intricacies of being a Mestiza, Disabled, poor, woman, mystic shape-shifter, who was born and has lived in the borderlands? I, who exist inside this woven basket, am always on the continuing journey to understand each piece and what it means when they are fit together.

Sister Outside counters the “selfies are  cry for help” claims (Feminist Griote)

The reason it is revolutionary and empowering to see selfies of beautiful Black women is because proper representation of people who look like me is nowhere near the point of over saturation. The internet is the only place where I can see women who look like me freely. I don’t have to wait for the bevy of white magazines to have pity on me and show me a white washed version of myself in print. Social media allows for people of color, queer folks, fats, femmes, trans* folks, and differently-abled folks to find proper representation of ourselves sans gatekeepers. Sites like IG/tumblr democratizes beauty and makes it accessible to us.

Research finds: Black,  Hispanic and Asian parents more concerned than White parents about online safety measures (Oxford Internet Institute)

The most significant take-away from our research is that there are significant demographic differences in concerns about young people. Some of the differences are not particularly surprising. For example, parents of children who have been exposed to pornography or violent content, or who have bullied or been bullied, have greater concern that this will happen to their child. Yet, other factors may be more surprising. For example, we found significant racial and ethnic differences in how parents approach these topics. Black, Hispanic, and Asian parents are much more concerned about at least some of the online safety measures than Whites, even when controlling for socioeconomic factors and previous experiences.

While differences in cultural experiences may help explain some of these findings, our results raise serious questions as to the underlying processes and reasons for these discrepancies. Are these parents more concerned because they have a higher level of distrust for technology? Because they feel as though there are fewer societal protections for their children? Because they feel less empowered as parents? We don’t know. Still, our findings challenge policy-makers to think about the diversity of perspectives their law-making should address. And when they enact laws, they should be attentive to how those interventions are received. Just because parents of colour are more concerned does not mean that an intervention intended to empower them will do so. Like many other research projects, this study results in as many — if not more — questions than it answers.

Nathan Richards on why the lack of black academics in the UK limits the wider impact of universities. (LSE Blog)

There are currently 18,550 professors in the UK, 2.5 million UK national and non UK students, of the 165 Universities in the UK the 24 that make up The Russell Group account for one fifth of the student population, around 550,000, there are 121,000 Black students in the UK, that’s around 5.9% (UK national 4.7%), 1 in 14 professors are from BME backgrounds, 36% of black academic staff are on temporary contracts, compared to 26% of white staff, the Russell Group should have around 25,000 black students, if they were being true to the ethnic make up of the country. They have around 11,000 instead – and the most potent result from the data I gathered for my research and film – only 85 Black professors exist in the UK, that’s 0.4%. Of the 85 Black professors in this country, only 17 are Black women, a situation that highlights the way gender and race collide within academia.

With a UK population of 3.3% it is clear that black Britons are faced with a very problematic situation, there is an overrepresentation of black students and a massive under representation of Black professors. These students end up overwhelmingly as recipients and not participants of knowledge creation in this country.

How a tweet from a a university student of Somali origin in Norway has triggered a big debate in the country over racism (BBC)

It started with a tweet. On Sunday evening, medical student Warsan Ismail began to list a series of everyday examples of racism she and her family have experienced in Norway. She began with the story of how, when she was just five, her neighbours set a pair of dogs after her mother. In 140 characters, she continued with anecdote after anecdote – each one tagged with the hashtag #norskrasisme, or “Norwegian racism”.

Within minutes, many others tweeted similar stories. By the end of the evening, it was one of the top trending terms on Twitter in Norway. Ismail was soon interviewed by major newspapers and on Norwegian TV. To date, there have been more than 6,000 tweets using the hashtag – and it’s still on the up.

Recently eliminated  X Factor (UK) contestant, Hannah Barrett discusses racism and colourism on Twitter (Reveal)

I’ve received a lot racist comments on Twitter. People say I’m too dark to be a singer and there have been lots of references to how dark my skin is. People say, “You’re black and ugly.” And nasty things like that. The sad thing is that most of them are made by black people who just have lighter skin than me.

Who said what, when about Black Twitter Part 1 – 2009-2012

A few days ago I put together a list of peer-reviewed papers on Black Twitter and to complement that list here are some non-peer reviewed sources that have made it on to my reading list.  I should make it clear that for the moment all I have done is group them by year (starting with the earliest mention that I can find and link back to).  I have not attempted to analyse or critique any of these sources. I have also not included the 2013 mentions because there are quite a few and I haven’t finished cataloging the 2013 sources.   But, even in  relation to the years listed below – I make no claim as to the completeness of this list and I would gladly welcome any additions.

2009

Choire Sicha wants to know “What Were Black People Were Talking About On Twitter Last Night?”  and Nick Douglas’ friend Micah has a “Black People on Twitter Theory” – which not everyone agrees with. Meanwhile a whole lot of people get really mad because black people are tweeting the 2009 BET awards and someone sets up a virtual museum preserving these reactions.

2010

Farhad Manjoo and the people at Slate  don’t just tells us  “How Black People use Twitter” – they draw us a brown Twitter bird too.  Alicia Nassardeen  gives brown twitter bird a makeover and Slate a dress down.  Danielle Belton reminds Slate of Things That Are Not Surprising: Black People Use Twitter. Over at NPR, more questions on “How Black People May or May Not Use Twitter“.

2011

The Root is concerned that “Twitter Trends Paint the Wrong Picture” and Belton is back to remind us that “Black People Still on Twitter!”  Kyra Gaunt explores the relationship between “Black Twitter, Combating the New Jim Crow & the Power of Social Media“.

2012

Kyra Gaunt asks “Is there such a thing as Black Twitter? Seriously?”  For those who think they know the answer, you may wish to read Micheal Arceneaux  who writes about  “The Miseducation of Black Twitter: Why It’s Not What You Think“.

Bibliography:

Arceneaux, M. (2012). The Miseducation of Black Twitter : Why It’s Not What You Think. Complex Tech. Retrieved November 13, 2013

Belton, D. (2010). Things That Are Not Surprising: Black People Use Twitter  Black Snob. Retrieved November 15, 2013

Belton, D. (2011). Black People Still On Twitter! *Clutches Pearls*. Black Snob. Retrieved November 15, 2013

Douglas, N. (2009). Micah’s “Black People On Twitter” Theory.  Too Much Nick. Retrieved November 15, 2009

Gaunt, K. (2011). Black Twitter, Combating the New Jim Crow & the Power of Social Networking. New Black Man. Retrieved November 15, 2013

Gaunt, K. (2012). Is there such a thing as Black Twitter ? Seriously? Kyraocity Retrieved November 13, 2013

Manjoo, F. (2010). How black people use Twitter. Slate. Retrieved November 13, 2013

Nassardeen, A. (2010). …oh, Slate.  InnyVinny Retrieved November 15, 2013

OMG! Black People. (2009). OMG! Black People! Retrieved November 15, 2013

Sanders, S. (2010). How Black People May or May Not Use Twitter. NPR. Retrieved November 15, 2013

Sicha, C. (2009). What Were Black People Talking About on Twitter Last Night ? The Awl. Retrieved November 15, 2013

Williams, P. J. (2011). The Root: Twitter Trends Paint The Wrong Picture NPR.  Retrieved November 15, 2013

ThugNotes Subtext: Coded Racism?

Notes:   I recently posted this on my personal blog but now that I moving this blog beyond a collection of links and into the realm of critique and commentary, I thought I would cross-post it here as  it touches on the performance of blackness in the virtual world – a subject that is central to my proposed dissertation topic: 

I recently read a wonderful summary of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s definition of coded racism that describes it as:

“new racism that entails individuals saying and doing things that perpetuate racial stereotypes and inequalities, but they do so in such a way that the offender is able to deny being explicitly racist.”

The definition emphasises the privilege of deniability that coded racism bestows on the offender, however it does not fully articulate the impact coded-racism has on the “victim” of racism.  The ambiguity present in coded-racism that allows an offender to deny their wrong doing is the same ambiguity that makes it difficult for those on the receiving end to actually call out well-disguised racism.  Feeling uncertain about whether something/someone is racist, or if someone is using code words, and if so how to address it, is an uncomfortable and lonely place to be.  Yet that is exactly where I find myself every time I watch another Thug Notes video.

Thug Notes Trailer

On the surface of it, the premise of the channel and its videos is very simple.  Each video features, a male African American literary scholar, Sweet Sparky, PhD who provides a summary and analysis of a popular English literature text; a  York Notes (or Cliff Notes for those across the pond) for the digital age. However just like any classic work of literature one cannot ignore Thug Note’s subtext; and it is this subtext that I suspect is the cause of my unease.

Despite Sweet Sparky being the only person you see and hear in each video, Napkin Note Productions, a company that aims to create films that “tickle your brain and warm your heart”, are responsible for Thug Notes.  Sweet Sparky is played by actor-turned-comedian Greg Edwards who is supported behind the scenes by a crew that includes Napkin Note founder Jared Bauer (credited as Show Creator, Writer and Executive Producer). The rationale for the project is that, “if education was funny, more kids would want to learn.”  Through this project Napkin Note want to “deliver intelligent summary and analysis of classical literature” and “… to spread the gospel of literature.”  Clearly a significant amount of thought has gone into the creation and execution of this project and while not wanting to take anything away from this, I’m still left with some lingering questions regarding Thug Notes.

For instance were the creators aware of the on-going debate surrounding the use of the word Thug as a racially coded-word? Whilst I am not 100% certain that “Thug” is the new N Word and thus should be considered off-limits; I am of the opinion that some words cannot be understood without exploring their contextual basis.  In trying to establish context within Thug Notes, both as a project and as a YouTube channel, I was immediately drawn to its tagline; “Classic Literature, Original Gangster”.   The phrase “Original Gangster” often abbreviated to ‘OG’ has its roots in late ‘80s, early 90s Hip-Hop.  Thus my inference is that Thug Notes use of the word “thug” is in some way related to hip-hop’s use of the word; a word that the late rapper Tupac Shakur passionately defined as:

When I say ‘Thug Life,’ I mean that shit. Cause these white folks see us as thugs. I don’t care what y’all think I don’t care if you think you a lawyer, if you a man, if you an ‘African-American’. If you whatever the f*ck you think you are. We thugs and n*gg@s to these motherf*ckers… (Transcript via Political BlindSpot)

I think one of the reasons I am uncomfortable with “thug” in the context of Thug Notes and its tagline is that one could very easily replace “lawyer” in Tupac’s statement with “English literary scholar” and the meaning of Tupac’s explanation would remain the same.   At the very least, what is apparent to me is that there is a degree of racist stereotyping that I am certainly not at ease with and none of this is made better by the visuals that accompany Thug Notes.

Sweet Sparky addresses his viewers from what may just as well be Jane Austen’s reading room.  Hardback books fill the shelves behind his period drama style armchair, a decanter of some brown, presumably alcoholic, liquid rests on the side table to his right; and then there is the man himself. More specifically his clothing; a do-rag on his head; an oversize gold chain hanging from his neck, a sleeveless shirt exposing muscular arms,  and bare-legs sitting in lace-less high-top  shoes.  Irrespective of the creators’ intention the visual presented by Thug Notes creates a juxtaposition that perpetuates racist stereotyping i.e. the modern day black brute in an environment that one does not expect to find him in.   It relies on long-standing falsehoods that have positioned black people as intellectually inferior; forgoing the library in order to live the gangster life.  If this is supposed to elicit some sort of “oh, that’s clever!” reaction from the viewer; it had the opposite effect on me.  I wasn’t pleasantly surprised.  I wasn’t surprised.  I felt the same old “hmm…I don’t know…” feeling that so often accompanies instances of coded-racism.

As if Sweet Sparky’s appearance is not enough, how he speaks is designed to reinforce his status as an Original Gangster.  Sentences are punctuated with ‘Na’mean?’ (You know what I mean?), and the occasional ‘bitch’ is thrown in for good measure.  If I were being generous I would say Thug Notes is Rap  Genius’ distant cousin; in that Rap-Genius interprets rap music in to English literature style “prose” and Thug Notes interprets English literature into rap style speak.  In this limited definition both do an excellent job. The meaning is not lost and there is knowledge to be gained.  However, I cannot watch Thug Notes without being reminded of the example bell hooks gave in her book, ‘We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity‘ of a

“middle-class black who had never spoken broken English or a black patois was being forced to assume a “ghetto rap” that signified to his co-workers that he was really black.”

I don’t know Sweet Sparky’s back story but what I do know is that the Napkin Note team decided that best way to make learning funny was through the performance of blackness that relies on stereotypes of black male intellect and masculinity.  Thug Notes explicit purpose may be beneficial and Napkin Notes ‘explicit intentions may be benign and from a social media numbers game perspective, with over 130,600 YouTube subscribers, 10,000 Facebook fans and 3,900+ Twitter followers, it is a success.  However, for me, I still cannot shake away that feeling of unease and discomfort that I get whenever I find myself confronted with coded-racism.