Category: MSc Research

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.

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.

Black Twitter: The rather short list of peer-reviewed literature

I’m compiling a list of peer-reviewed research on Black Twitter. At the moment I use the term list in the broadest sense possible because I have only found three papers that focus specifically and primarily on Black Twitter.

Brock, A. (2012). From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(4), 529–549. [doi:10.1080/08838151.2012.732147]

Florini, S. (2013). Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on “Black Twitter.” Television & New Media. [doi:10.1177/1527476413480247]

Sharma, S. (2013). Black Twitter ?: Racial Hashtags , Networks and Contagion. New Formations: a Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 78, 46–64. [doi:10.3898/NEWF.78.02.2013] [Draft PDF]

I am of course relying on more than journals for my research on Black Twitter and I will be compiling a list of non-peer reviewed sources soon; but for now if anyone knows of any paper that should be on this list please let met know.

Focusing my MSc research: Race, Racism and Black Twitter?

When I started this blog it seemed like the dissertation planning process was years away.  Now I am a month away from submitting my first proposal.  “Just” 1,000 words and a brief outline of what I intend to research and why I want to research it.  I no longer have the luxury of focusing on three very broad topics: race, technology and development.  I have to narrow this down to something that can be researched in a few months and converted into a 12,000 – 15,000 dissertation.  This is also means that I can’t afford to simply post links to articles, journals etc without engaging with the material – something I was reluctant to do a few months ago because I felt that my ideas still needed some refining.  Well, the time has come for me to do more than just read and focus my research around a topic or (at this stage) themes that I can transform into a dissertation proposal.

This process is proving harder than I thought.  As the mind map below illustrates I had (and still have) loads of ideas/potential research areas floating about in my mind

Mind Map
Somewhere in this jumble of words a dissertation question shall emerge

From the very start I knew I was interested in race and I wanted to use Critical Race Theory as a framework.  Sometime in the summer I read  Prof. Jessie Daniel’s paper on Race, Racism and Internet Studies and there two things in her review that stood out for me:

this:

There are interesting conversations about race happening on Twitter (e.g., sometimes following hashtags such as #blacktwitter and #browntwitterbird). To date, there is no research in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will surely change soon (Daniels, 2012 p.171)

and this:

Even more unusual is any recognition of racism on the Internet and this is connected, I argue, to the theoretical weakness of the prevailing racial formation theory in Internet studies (Daniels, 2012 p 172)
Daniel’s not only identifies an under-researched area of Internet Studies but also suggests that perhaps an alternative theoretical framework be used to improve understanding on race/racism and Internet Studies.
 I had already given some thought on how Critical Race Theory could work as a  potential theoretical approach but Daniel’s paper really got me thinking more about Twitter and specifically Black Twitter.   It is still early days in the process and as the mind map illustrates – those items in green; Internet Studies, Race, Twitter, Black Twitter, Critical Race Theory; are the sort of broad areas of interest to me but I am certainly becoming more focused in my reading and questioning.
One area that I think I would like to explore is the potentially US-centric nature of the term Black Twitter and how it impacts non-American black twitter users. No doubt there will be other areas of interest and I will certainly be using this blog to examine these other areas.  I anticipate that as a result of this (slightly) more focused approach, this blog will become less about general ICT4D and race topics and more about the construction and  performance of blackness in the Twitterverse.
References:
Daniels, J. 2013.  “Race, Racism & Internet Studies: A Review and Critique” New Media & Society. Special issue“Internet Studies: The State of An Emerging Field,” Charles Ess and William Dutton, Editors. (Published Online ahead of Print. doi: 1461444812462849)