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, my adviser nearly broke me when she looked at my initial dissertation proposal and said: “I cannot lead you forward with this.”
[If you are unfamiliar with academic research, and in particular, what it takes to earn a Ph.D., just imagine suiting up for your best friend’s/line sister’s/frat’s/baby cousin’s wedding and overhearing his/her would-be betrothed tell them “I can’t do this” 38 minutes before the ceremony has to start. Got it?]
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?