#BlackLivesMatter as civic engagement

It’s been nearly a year since Deen Freelon, assistant professor of communication studies at American University, first reached out about applying for a grant to study #BlackLivesMatter as civic engagement.

Together with Freelon and Charlton McIllwain, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, I’m conducting research on how social media use factors in to personal and community activism. Deen handles the Big Data, searching for patterns and clusters that indicate meaning. Charlton parses the text of thousands of tweets, identifying resonant messages in the conversation that’s unfolding in the last 14 months. My role is to capture the stories of those who used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, whether online, in conversation or writings, or on signs held high during on-the-ground protests.

Read more…While the grant was approved in the spring, a delay in paperwork processing meant my portion of the study — in-depth interviews with people in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York City — was delayed until early August, weeks before the school year began. Rather than wait for the travel paperwork to clear, I decided to solicit interviews “in the field,” tweeting out requests for participants throughout the summer.

Thus far, there’s been mixed response to the call for participants. The requisite trolls showed up, telling me I’m an awful human being for “race-baiting” and refusing to move on from Ferguson. I’ve also talked on the phone and via email with a handful of folks concerned with the intellectual and emotional labor of being asked to talk about their experiences without receiving financial compensation. More than 100 people completed the informed consent form to participate. Thus far, slightly fewer than 50 people from across the United States and in Canada have participated in the research interviews.

This week, with the red tape cleared and the travel approved, I’m visiting Ferguson, Mo.; St. Louis and New York City to meet face-to-face with people who have been impacted by #BlackLivesMatter. Together with individuals from the communities that faced intense scrutiny over the last year and some change, I aim to capture narratives that illustrate how a hashtag works as a symbol of resistance as it moves from online spaces to the streets of our nation and back again.

I’m both pensive and excited about touching down in Missouri and New York this week. My recruitment strategy hasn’t gone according to plan, so there are alarmingly empty spaces where appointments to meet with people should be. By trade, I’m a journalist, so I’m working with connections (previous interviewees, working journalists, community members) to reach out to people and secure interviews.

Know someone? I invite your suggestions.

The most compelling part of this project is finally getting to move from behind the desk and out into “the field.” Previously, my work has relied solely on telephone and convenient in-person interviews as a means of data collection. This time, I get to immerse myself — even if only for a few days — in the communities I’ve watched via mainstream, niche and social-media coverage for the past year and some change.

I imagine that as I sit with participants, sharing coffee or snacks as we discuss what life’s been like since Aug. 9, 2014, I will hear some of the same things I’ve heard from a few dozen participants: how they explain #BlackLivesMatter is a statement of affirmation, not negation; the moment the images from Ferguson and beyond prompted them to do something; the outcomes they are working for via everything from sharing links to donating money to shutting down interstates.

The text of interviews I’ve done thus far primarily discuss the role of allies. Theirs are the stories I’ve heard the most. It’s a surprising finding as I expected to hear from more Black folks the first go-round. (I’ll interview anyone who is interested in talking with me about #BlackLivesMatter.) But I get it: until there’s a connection via email, phone or in-person, I am just someone tweeting out requests for time and information, with seemingly little to offer in return. It’s difficult to combat against the stain of abuse perpetrated by media and academic types who seek to gather tweets, blog posts and personal narratives for clicks and praise in elite circles.

But as with my research on Black Twitter, the implications of this work matter to me far beyond its public reception. Media indeed writes “the first draft of history,” but academia has a lasting role in shaping the institutional memory of cultural events and social movements. Digital and social media are precariously ephemeral – tweets favorited today are stacked into archives that are costly to reach; stories posted to the web are archived and retrievable only with the knowledge of what exists and where. Aside from community and individual labor that seeks to accurately and culturally competently record the experiences of those who marched (whether in-person or online) under the banner Black Lives Matter, there’s little support within the master’s institutions to preserve accurate narratives that are accessible to both public and canonical scholars who will reproduce knowledge about what happened in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and so many other cities during and after the uprising.

That’s what drives me past the fear, the unanswered emails, and the lack of response. I have no experience in community organizing. I live in a small college town that’s physically far removed from some of the centers of activist work. I no longer write a weekly column that can draw attention to these issues. I’m not on a public-speaking circuit, and I rarely blog. My activism is rooted in disrupting a structurally elite space with co-created knowledge developed via collective work with the very communities the academy has patronized, pathologized, and worse, ignored.

In contrast with those who organize, fundraise and campaign, my small contribution rests in making sure the story of #BlackLivesMatter as civic engagement is told accurately and authentically. I use what access have to enter their stories into the canon of work that is structurally relied upon by both scholars and media to frame discussion about this social movement.

I want to make sure that we get it right. That accuracy comes only with the help of those who are willing to lend their time to tell their stories. I hope to connect with more of you this week.

I’m ABD. Lead me home, #BlackTwitter.

I’m ABD.

All But Dissertation or All But Done, depending on how you look at it. After yesterday’s meeting with my committee (and by meeting I  mean nerve-wracking dissertation proposal defense), I’ve been admitted to candidacy to earn a doctorate of philosophy in mass communication.

After standing to deliver for 45 minutes – and sitting to converse and debater for another 45 – I walked down the hallways that once sent me into full-blown panic attacks as five scholars debated whether I was ready to take one step closer to becoming one of them. I had a few minutes to think about how I got here.

My dissertation is on Black Twitter. By now, in Twitter time, the topic is somewhat staid. A few key influencers have posted their contempt for journalists and researchers who have exploited the creations of its contributors for page clicks and promotion. I empathize. I watched just a few months ago as black Twitter users in the United States lambasted BuzzFeed’s style of coverage with #BlackBuzzFeed, only to see their snappy, sardonic tweets co-opted for an actual feature on BuzzFeed. I saw @FeministaJones and the Twitterati bust the GOP wide open with #RacismEndedWhen, and saw how she was totally unmentioned as mainstream journalism picked up on the trend, but ignored its creator.

I’ve been watching for a while now.

I’ve been using Twitter since 2007, when I created my first account, @La_Redactrice (French for “the editor”) to open editorial board meetings at the Tallahassee Democrat to everyday users online (for some reason, the Twitter Birthday app seems to think I waited until 2009; but whatevs – I used it to cover local elections in 2008. So…) Then, my intention was to use the new media channel to connect with a different segment of digital users. It was a fun way to connect with local readers, old friends from college, and cool people I met online.

In August 2010, as I was packing my things to leave the Democrat and head north to pursue this Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill, I read Farhaj Manjoo’s Slate article “How Black People Use Twitter.” It resonated with me on several levels. First, journalistically, it never should have passed an editor’s desktop. While picking apart a trivial trend, #wordsthatleadtotrouble, Manjoo applied data from the Pew Center for the Internet and American Life to form his perspective on participants in the trend. Mostly young, mostly black, he said, this group’s “overrepresentation” allowed it to dominate trending topics in a way that no other U.S.-bound racial group had. His observations were backed by Brendan Meeder, a computer-science student at Carnegie Mellon. And because Manjoo had a huge public platform and presented his observations from a position of authority, in that moment, he got to define what black Twitter was.

Had the piece been written and submitted by, say, one of my #J153 students, it would have earned an F. Nowhere in the piece did Manjoo actually quote one of the black Twitter users that he used for bemusement in his trend piece. There was no first-person perspective from any identifiably black person who used Twitter, period. And thus began yet another iteration of the mainstream media’s attempts to shove dynamic black existences into a monolithic form.

Spent #NABJ2012 editing, recruiting participants for my research, and taking pics of Rusty, my travel companion.

That stayed with me. For three years, as I completed coursework, weathered debilitating depression, gained 30 pounds and wondered if I’d made a colossal mistake in coming back to grad school, Manjoo’s piece joined the other pinpricks of misrepresentation I’d spent my career as a young journalist trying to combat. I spent my second year of the program examining Black Twitter through the theoretical framework of sense of community. I considered launching an ethnography/netnography to explore the social ties that made this digital black existence what it was. I took up research on so-called Black Twitter through the eyes of the black press – handing out Moo cards to my fellow convention goers at the NABJ convention in New Orleans, and contacting members of the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association to ask them about how black weeklies were using Twitter to connect with younger audiences.

I didn’t get very far. Among those who actually used Twitter, few could answer the questions emblazoned on the quirky slivers of cardstock: “Who Is Black Twitter? What Is Black Twitter? Tweet me. Tell me.” Among the black newspaper set, only two consultants could take time out to speak with me about how they used social media, period.

And so, like a few other research projects of mine, my ethnography of Black Twitter, a few interviews, a few personal fieldnotes and a host of favorited tweets, was set aside.

Then, this time last December, I nearly broke when my initial dissertation proposal was not approved.

I pushed through teaching my classes, wrapped up my outstanding commitments, and flew home to Kentucky where I spent a few days crying, praying, and commiserating with my childhood best friend, also a Ph.D. student. Days, not weeks, because it only took a few days before the words of one of my special sorors’ came to mind: “Never limit to yourself to one thing. Don’t get married to a single dissertation topic.”

What I heard: Return to your first love.

Black people are my first love. From the parents who raised me, to the churches that prayed for me, to the teachers and administrators at FAMU who admitted me with sorry grades and worked with me as if I was a potential Rhodes scholar, I have always been here for black people. And I always will. Unapologetically.

[You can ask the residents of North Florida who were in the Democrat’s coverage range – especially one kook out in Shell Point who’d call on Fridays to call my people cockroaches, killers and niggers, or rail at my voicemail at 4 a.m. that he was sick and tired of reading my “black SHIT, BLACK SHIT, BLACK SHIT!” and told me to go work for EBONY magazine. I’m true to this.]

And so I picked up my research and presenting on Black Twitter, and I started again. Fellowship money exhausted, 28 days to find a job or move home, I started again by returning to my true love: writing about black people. Giving us the representation we need and deserve. Continuing the legacy of Freedom’s Journal: “to plead our own cause.” But rather than doing it as a copy editor, newspaper reporter, columnist or teacher as I’ve done in the past, I’m doing it as a budding scholar.

So I’m here. One proposal defense, 86 days and 30+ interviews later, I’m looking to bridge one crucial gap in my research – how black Twitter users responded to skewed mainstream depictions of their online existence 140 characters at a time. And I need your help.

I have approximately 90 days (86, really) to complete my dissertation. I have about one month to add to my existing data, a collection of interview narratives about how black Twitter users see themselves. I have stories from elite users (with 10K+ followers), feminists, would-be activists, and regular people. But I don’t believe I’ve quite captured the narrative of how we have been and continue to be so much more than a few writers’ curiosities. So I’m sounding a digital drum to find a few folks who’ll talk with me for a few minutes – about 60 to be exact. Maybe more than once if you’ve got something really compelling. This is not the definitive work – that’s in the hands of @drgoddess, who’s penning a book on “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter,” her SXSW presentation in 2012. But it is a contribution to the scholarly literature, where few writings about this topic exist.

This is my call. Richer and more detailed than the 140 characters I get on Twitter, less academic than my consent form. This is me, sitting in my Carroll Hall office, calling “habari gani?” to you. If you have a few minutes to answer during the next two weeks, and are willing to commit your perspective to this research, the doors of the Ivory Tower are now open, the link is posted below.

Won’t you come?