In the early days of Twitter, social technology expert Chris Messina came up with the concept of a “hashtag.” His intention was to use the character before the phrase “barcamp” to compile information about online conversations concerning the 2007 BarCamp tech unconference. The benefits of a hashtag took a couple of years to catch on, but once it did, it was a cultural phenomenon that solidified Twitter’s place in the upper echelon of social media giants. Now, Twitter has become—among many other things—the go-to place for disseminating information, fostering unity among marginalized people, encouraging social activism, documenting live events/shows and analyzing TV trends around the world. It’s an online discussion forum for everything that happens in society, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the latest celebrity scandals.
Other social media websites are now on the hashtag train, but Twitter continues to be the birthplace for innovative and entertaining trending topics. Twitter hashtags have a profound influence on the marketing approach of every major network and the online communities who use hashtags while viewing a show. The marriage between Twitter and TV is so powerful that Nielsen teamed up with Twitter in 2013 to form a top-10 most tweeted about shows list called “Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings.” With about 316 million active users, Twitter is continuing to swell to gargantuan proportions, forming new communities of people who love various aspects of pop culture. There are many powerful Twitter communities, but the blerds (a portmanteau of “Black” + “nerd”) are one of the most impactful and influential groups on the real-time updating website.
The popularity of “Blerd Twitter” is largely due to the recent inception of several nerd-centered websites for Black people. One of the largest blerd blogs, Black Girl Nerds (BGN), was created by Jamie Broadnax in February of 2012, and has become the premiere space for Black girls to come together and discuss their nerdy passions as well as challenges in a white-male-dominated nerd world. Broadnax, who was affectionately dubbed the “Beyoncé of Twitter” by her followers, is well-known for organizing live-tweet sessions of today’s most popular shows. Along with over 48,000 followers, @BlackGirlNerds not only uses network-created hashtags for shows (#TheWalkingDead, #HTGAWM), they also create memorable hashtags specifically for the blerd community (#DemDeads, #DatMurda). In fact, during Season One of the Shonda Rhimes-produced drama How to Get Away With Murder, the hashtag went viral when Rhimes herself used it in a tweet.
Live-tweeting is both a promotional and statistical goldmine. Verified Twitter pages of popular TV shows tweet small breadcrumbs, recaps, and slight spoilers year-round in anticipation of the upcoming season. In return, fans are consistently locked in to their favorite shows. Networks are able to pull stats on hashtags and tweets related to their top programs and get brutally honest insight into what fans think about every aspect of their shows. Fans are also captured months before new shows debut, and Blerd Twitter is often one of the first communities to be ahead of the curve, encouraging live tweets prior to the premiere of a TV show. BGN is especially engaging because the Twitter conversations usually make reference to other big inside jokes on Black Twitter:
Black nerds on Twitter are an eclectic group, into sci-fi/horror/nerdy shows like Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Game of Thrones, and they often view the show through a different lens, compared to a non-POC viewer. Blerd Twitter's consistent viewership and use of blerd hashtags along with network hashtags have made them a prominent source for constructive critiques about television. Hashtags aside, Blerds will give shows a fair shot, but this community won't hesitate to call series writers and producers out on important issues, like a lack of diversity and/or lax character development for Black characters on the show.
For example, the popular blog Graveyard Shift Sisters (GSS) is solely dedicated to providing informative conversations around the importance and overall presence of Black women in the horror genre. A few months ago, GSS reviewed TV One's “Fear Files” segments, and the writer did not hold back on thoughts about the overwhelming need for Black writers and directors to effectively bring solid storylines that push the envelope, as well as realistic dialogue between the Black characters.
“Dear TV One, either just stop or hire Black writers and directors who've been slaying the horror genre with their talents. They do exist.”
The website recently published an article titled, Black Women to Look For This 2015-2016 Horror TV Season which highlighted prominent actors like KeKe Palmer, Jill Marie Jones, and Angela Bassett and their respective TV shows. As Halloween approaches, the Twitter community is taking this time to celebrate films like Blade and Candyman with the #BlackHorror21 series.
It may seem like the blerds of Twitter are simply throwing random conversations into the Internet universe, but their demands are not falling on deaf ears. Networks have started making changes in the past few years and since 2012, primetime shows like Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, blackish and Empire have dominated ratings, with the full support of Blerd Twitter behind them. The success of Orange Is The New Black, which features a prominent cast of Black and Latina actresses, must also be attributed in part to those blerds live-tweeting as they binge. These shows are not centered on nerd or sci-fi themes, but they all feature Black leading actors. And, while being a nerd is an integral part of the lives of those self-proclaimed blerds, being Black and supporting Black actors breaking down barriers in Hollywood is equally (if not more) important.
Freema Agyeman (l) as Amanita, the partner of trans “hacktivist” Nomi
2016 looks to be a promising year for Black characters in the sci-fi genre, with the announcement of the supernatural series Falling Water, starring The Dark Knight alum David Ajala (as well as Will Yun Lee, who played Agent Zero in Wolverine). In the Netflix arena, Black superhero Luke Cage (Marvel) will make his way to the streaming service in his own series. The character, a man who was falsely imprisoned and gained superhuman strength, will be portrayed by The Good Wife’s Mike Colter. The showrunner is also a Black writer/producer—Cheo Coker, who has 25,000 followers on Twitter, many of them members of the Blerd Twitter community who will no doubt rally around him when the show premieres. The sci-fi series Sense8, which features Doctor Who alum Freema Agyeman (Amanita) and British actor Aml Ameen (Capheus), has been renewed for a second season.
As TV continues to work symbiotically with Twitter, networks will increase their efforts to reach out to the most impactful and loyal fans. Between blerd giants Black Girl Nerds, Graveyard Shift Sisters, AfroPunk, BlerdNation, Black Nerd Problems, FanBros, The Geek Twins, GeekSoulBrother and Nerds of Color, there are hundreds of thousands of Twitter users who are a potential target market for shows featuring Black leading characters. The TV industry can no longer deny the demand (and necessity) of diverse content, creators and characters. The changes that have already occurred, and the ones that we can anticipate in the future, tell us that the power of the blerd is strong and has an incredibly long reach.
Long live the Blerd!