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Obama, Yes We Can, Collage

How Obama kick-started black civil rights online

The outgoing president’s 2008 campaign was more revolutionary than we realise, inspiring a new era of Internet activism and black empowerment

It’s hard to talk about Obama without discussing the internet.

For those of us that make up this vague ‘millennial’ generation, the world can sometimes seem just as old as we are. I was born not long after the text message, the World Wide Web and I are sisters close in age, and I've developed at roughly the same rate as the internet revolution. Dial-up tones and old-school brick phones hold place in my memory as clunky, awkward prototypes of the camera phones and wifi-led lives we lead now – but what was I back then if not a clunky, awkward prototype of the adult I am today? 

Many of us now in our twenties were teens during an important time for shaping both American political history and the internet as we know it. In 2006, three key things happened that would forever change our online landscape: Facebook was opened to the wider population, Twitter was invented, and YouTube was acquired by Google. A few months afterwards, in early 2007, Barack Obama, announced his presidential candidacy. A decade later, Obama’s second term as President is coming to an end, while Facebook, Youtube and Twitter rank as three of the most used social media sites on the internet. 

With the percentage of worldwide internet users growing each year, the screen becomes a keyhole through which we can view the globe, and America is positioned at the heart of it. The top ten most illegally downloaded films of 2016 all came from American production companies, proving America exists at the forefront of this global gaze. These choices, to keep America as a familiar, dominant culture, are being collectively made by internet users across the world. And as leaders of the country, the American presidents are perhaps just as important to influencing our cultural upbringing as the internet.

“As forms of social media have grown and developed, black people have consistently shown up as a demographic that utilises them with persistence” 

Nowhere is this more evident than with Obama. The developments in social networking and the announcement of his presidential candidacy could not have coincided more conveniently; not only did he become the first black president, he was also the first president able to utilise social media to run a successful election campaign. For it, Obama sourced Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who left the social networking site to volunteer with the campaign, as well as Marc Andreesen, a Facebook board member and the founder of Netscape. Social media heavyweights in tow, Obama connected with voters through the internet, creating, a campaign website that doubled as a social network. Members could write blogs, connect with local groups, and post photographs. In a 2008 blog posted on the site, Hughes wrote of its online successes, saying “there can be no question that these local, grassroots organisations played a critical role in Tuesday's victory”.

After his election win on November 5, the internet measurably lit up with his name. ‘Obama’ achieved worldwide peak search popularity on Google that day, as did the search for ‘black president’. This is another example of a collective choice made by internet users; despite how racial constructs manifest differently across the world, the frequency for searches such as ‘biracial president’ or ‘mixed president’ are incomparable. The online world agrees, through our private search habits, that Obama is not the first mixed-race president, not the first president of colour, no. Obama has always, through the lens of the World Wide Web, been black.

“Were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not be president,” says Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post. That the first president to use social media to win a presidential election is also black does not, at the end of his presidency, seem so surprising. As forms of social media have grown and developed, black people have consistently shown up as a demographic that utilises them with persistence: they are, for example, the largest racial demographic to use Instagram, and are more likely to use Twitter than white people.

The collective and communal way in which black people congregate on social media has been examined before. “Black people – specifically, young black people – do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else,” writes Farhad Manjoo for Slate. The concept of “Black Twitter” is a cultural phenomenon of itself: Complex Magazine ran a series called ‘LMAO Moments From #BlackTwitter This Week’, there are subreddits dedicated to “black people being hilarious on social media”, and the Annenberg Innovation Lab even announced a study to collect data on the phenomenon.

The imposed narrative of what Black Twitter consists of mostly divides into two camps; memes and other humour-based content make up the first, with content production seemingly dominated by black teenagers (for example Kayla Newman, the then-16-year-old who coined the term “on fleek” on her vine channel). On the other side is a slightly older crowd of millennial activists, whose concerns include better media representation and ending police brutality, amongst others, with the rights of black people centring most discussion. Here, social media is used to both organise real-world rallies, but also to spread the message online, where a strength in online numbers results in viral content that can have a real-world cultural impact.

In this incarnation, Black Twitter is undoubtedly political. The collective call and response to matters of civil rights and online organisation is similar to the ways in which events and local groups were organised through during his first election campaign. That Barack Obama, an Illinois State Senator could, within four years, progress to become President of the United States is by the same means that April Reign coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and entered national discourse with such force that, a year and a half later, the Academy began to diversify its voting members. The individual, bolstered by the online collective, changes the culture. “We exist as both individuals and as a collective,” Kimberly Ellis, Ph.D. (aka Dr Goddess) says, capturing how these mechanisms work. “You can be black, and you can be on Twitter. But in order to classify it as ‘Black Twitter,’ there has to be a cultural response.”

“Ours was the first generation for which a separate, yet equally real and influential, virtual space had existed with similar social parallels to the real world”

Feminista Jones explains how this culture came to be by linking it to a history of African-Americans using alternative communications as a survival necessity, beginning with newly captured African slaves using work songs to communicate after being “separated from those who spoke their native languages”. In the context of African-American history this analysis makes sense, but what it doesn’t explain is how the structures of Black Twitter are noticeable in black social network users and their online communities all over the world.

In the UK, we’ve experienced the viral successes of Black Twitter spreading into wider culture: Elijah Quashie’s series ‘The Chicken Connoisseur’, for example, or Kayode Ewunmi’s comedy character Roll Safe. There is now a #BlackLivesMatterUK, established after the success of the original organisation in the US, and a research project is taking place at Leeds University to study UK Black Twitter. There have been articles written about South Africa’s Black Twitter, and successful black activist hashtags from the country such as #FeesMustFall and #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh have trended across regions. France, too, has experienced the success of viral stars like Wil Aime, and Black Twitter hashtags, such as #SiLesNoirsParlaientCommeLesBlancs (if black people talked like white people), which parodies and pokes fun at the very real microaggressions that black people experience in the country. The collective Black Twitter community exists not just within the US, but in more or less the same form across continents, existing parallel to one another online.

For these communities, Obama’s 2008 campaign was a globally witnessed blueprint for how to successfully use social networks for political gain. Even his campaign slogan, “Yes We Can”, emphasises the power that the collective identity can have. Ours was the first generation for which a separate, yet equally real and influential, virtual space had existed with similar social parallels to the real world. Except, in this space, the cultural hierarchies of the real world don’t easily translate. Rather than being seen as fringe cultures on the pockets of a dominant Western culture, black culture can exist online as a valid and separate entity. The experiences of black people are not so readily policed, instead they’re encouraged and enjoyed. And when the collective concern turns towards the political, there is no doubt for the millennial about the power of the internet because we came of age witnessing what successful online campaigns can accomplish. Obama proved to us that even the most powerful political position on Earth is attainable for black folk, as long as you come correct on social media. 

Although, as the first black president, Obama’s place in black civil rights history would always have been guaranteed, it’s doubtful that the influence of his 2008 election campaign will. It was, perhaps, the catalyst that spurned a new wave of black civil rights movements across the globe, a movement that, whilst differing in focus across countries, still has one, central, collective focus: to liberate and uplift the lives of black people the world over.