Alistair Fairweather

In darkies' Africa

2009-11-06 10:32

On Wednesday an American company squashed an online conversation between black South Africans because it disapproved of a word they were using.

The company in question is Twitter - the current darling of the online world - and the word is "darkie".

How did this happen? Well, rather than a global village, Twitter is a more like a global cocktail party - with everyone trying to amuse or impress as many people as possible.

What Twitter calls "trending topics" are the biggest conversations at that party, often with hundreds of thousands of participants. And the more participants, the higher a conversation ranks.

Conversations are grouped by easily recognisable phrases, usually made into a single word without spaces. At the moment, for instance, the number one topic is #fatgirlremix - a running joke about song lyrics.

And just like at a real cocktail party, people sometimes get offended. In this case the offense was caused by the phrase "things darkies say" (or #thingsdarkiessay in Twitter-speak).

It started as a gentle, self-referential joke among local Twitter users, riffing on language and prejudice. Columnist Khaya Dlanga for instance, quipped "#thingsdarkiessay There's lightning, cover the mirrors! (Or is things grannies say?)" (Check out his perspective on the debacle).

And since the majority of America was still asleep, it became a trending topic. Then the sleeping giant began to wake up and Americans began yelling their outrage about the topic. Ironically this ensured #thingsdarkiessay not only remained a trending topic but climbed to the number one spot.

And boy, were they angry. "Whoever made this #thingsdarkiessay TT. Find a busy street, blindfold yourself and walk into traffic." And that's a polite example.

I couldn't help thinking "Wow, our black people are much funnier than yours. At least they know how to take a joke."

But what I hadn't realised is that a bunch of racist American idiots had jumped on the bandwagon, saying things like "#thingsdarkiessay Can I pay my Project rent in food stamps?" and "#thingsdarkiessay 'jamal put down that uzi and get ready for church'". In cocktail party terms this is about as welcome as the drunk guy who stumbles up to the group of feminists gently bantering with one another and tells a joke about beating his wife.

I'd like to think it was this Twitter were reacting to when they removed #thingsdarkiessay from their trending list, but I suspect it was just a knee jerk to the perceived racism of the topic.

Let's be clear here - they didn't stop the conversation itself, they just made it private instead of public. So this isn't censorship so much as refusal to advertise - which is a quite different thing.

That said, Twitter was happy to let the #iranelections topic trend, despite the fact that some tweets incited violent protest. So the Americans are comfortable with Iranians killing each other in the name of democracy, but they baulk at a little racial misunderstanding?

I suppose the lesson here is if we're going to play with their toys, we have to play by their rules, however nonsensical they may be. That and Americans are far more hung up about race than us. Now that is really ironic.

Send your comments to Alistair

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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