Monday, April 13, 2020

#WeSeeYou and #Sawubona (Part 1)


Research is not always about matters of urgent importance. Sometimes we just get curious about something that may turn out to be interesting. This and the following blog post (Part 2, coming soon) are about a Twitter hashtag that puzzled me and the progress I've made in understanding it. A hashtag is a form of metadiscourse that self-comments on a tweet, highlighting a theme that the tweet shares, or invites sharing, with other tweets. It tries to link a tweet to some larger conversation. These blog posts represent a certain way of analyzing Twitter and related discourse. They have nothing directly to do with the current global health crisis, though recent tweets that I'll quote refer to the pandemic. There's no escaping that for now, I guess.

This is research in the raw. If you can correct any errors or add something to what I say here, please comment!

So, my curiosity was sparked when I noticed that the Twitter hashtag #WeSeeYou is currently used with several different, even quite opposite meanings that can be negative or positive in tone. On the one hand, it can be affectionately teasing, sarcastically mocking, seriously accusatory, or downright paranoid. On the other hand, it can express praise, admiration, gratitude, solidarity, or compassion. It can also threaten or brag. In any of these uses, #WeSeeYou claims to represent the collective voice of an implied "we," not just an individual's opinion.

A little digging finds that this hashtag has some affinity with African American culture and that it specifically originated on #BlackTwitter, but now it is widely used and the range of meanings has shifted. Lately, #WeSeeYou is sometimes linked to the Zulu (Southern African) greeting sawubona, which translates as "we see you," has itself been used as a hashtag, and clearly resonates with some senses of #WeSeeYou. I was hoping that #Sawubona might be the key to unlock a deeper relationship between #WeSeeYou and African American communication culture, but (spoiler alert!) the link remains elusive to this culturally limited White researcher and this pair of posts will leave us with more questions than answers.

Evolution of #WeSeeYou on Twitter

Figure 1: Recognizing Health Care Workers (2020)
Figure 1 represents a Twitter genre that has become very common in recent years, using #WeSeeYou to express collective recognition, gratitude and support for an admired person or group, in this case health care workers during the current crisis.

Figure 2: Compassion and Help for Cancer Patients and Families (2020)
#WeSeeYou can also mean "we see your suffering or need and want to help and support you," as Figure 2 illustrates. This type of message has also become fairly common on Twitter. It hints at the possibility that one source of meaning for "we see you" might be the following biblical passage:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
(Matthew 25:37-40)

Figure 3: Negative Uses of #WeSeeYou (2020)

The tweets in Figure 3, which were grabbed from the same recent Twitter searches as Figures 1 and 2, illustrate some ways the hashtag is used to call out or criticize. Each tweet says of its target , "we see you for the failure (or liar, fake, hypocrite, etc.) that you really are." These include tweets by conspiracy theory fans like @bradphelps317 (third from top), in this case alluding to the theory that the Apollo moon missions were a hoax that the government continues to cover up.

The original uses of #WeSeeYou (illustrated in Figure 4) were interestingly different from the above examples.

Figure 4: First Uses of #WeSeeYou (2009)

Two things strike me about these earliest instances of #WeSeeYou I was able to find using the Twitter search function. One is that most if not all of these tweets from mid-2009 appear to be written by Black people. (Even the one from @Apollo13bot is actually a retweet from a since-deleted account called @soblackrates.) This was no longer quite so true a few years later, but scrolling through a sample of #WeSeeYou tweets from 2012, you'll find that many of them still closely resemble the ones in Figure 4. #WeSeeYou clearly originated on #BlackTwitter and spread from there. 

The other thing that strikes me about the tweets in Figure 4--and this quality also continued to be prominent for several years later--is that most if not all of them call out some contradiction between appearance and reality with more-or-less gentle irony. Targets include people caught looking at someone or farting in class, playing on words, denying some truth, or trying to look like something they aren't. #WeSeeYou means we see your pretense and who you really are, usually not as a harsh condemnation but more as a wry comment on some human foible. @DJJedi's tweet (bottom of Figure 4) seems not to fit this pattern but is ambiguous. The tweet is a shout out in praise of Keith Olbermann (a liberal TV commentator) but it's not clear to me if #WeSeeYou refers to Olbermann himself or to the hypocritical politicians Olbermann was criticizing in the linked story. 

Later on #BlackTwitter, some #WeSeeYou tweets of positive recognition, resembling those in Figures 1 and 2, expressed support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement of protest against police killings of Black people. There were not really a lot of such tweets, but Figure 5 shows a couple of examples.

Figure 5: #WeSeeYou and #BlackLivesMatter (2014)

Ironically, this positive genre of #WeSeeYou soon became very common in connection with the pro-police counter-movement of #BlueLivesMatter, as illustrated by Figure 6. 

Figure 6: #WeSeeYou and #BluelivesMatter (2015)

#Sawubona: The Missing Link?

No only did the hashtag #WeSeeYou originate on #BlackTwitter, the idea of "we see you" seems to resonate more broadly in African American popular culture. Before it showed up on Twitter, the theme appeared in rap music. The logo at the top of this post belongs to an Afropunk-themed Facebook currently presents "We See You, Sis," a video series "aimed at celebrating Black women who make an impact online."

Searching for a link between #WeSeeYou and African American culture, I soon came upon the concept of sawubona, which, as I mentioned earlier, is a Zulu greeting term that translates to English as "we see you." Could this be the cultural link I was looking for? We'll explore that possibility in Part 2 (coming soon).

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