clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a Game of Thrones hashtag sparked a debate over ownership, linguistics, and cultural appropriation

A huge dragon perched on a building with its wings outspread.
Black Twitter's Game of Thrones hashtag has sparked a massive online debate about ownership, subcultural appropriation, and linguistics.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Who "owns" Twitter hashtags? Is it possible to appropriate a hashtag from within your own corner of internet culture? What if that hashtag is already being used to mark off a kind of safe space, a haven on the web away from outsiders?

These are questions that Twitter's blerd (black nerd) community has been asking since a debate over hashtagging broke out last week. At issue: #DemThrones, a hashtag used weekly as part of the Game of Thrones live-tweet that takes place among a collective of black Twitter users — a.k.a. Black Twitter. Perhaps also at issue is the influential black woman who popularized the hashtag — at the perceived expense of the men who say they created it.

But while the conflict may initially seem to concern "just" a hashtag, the situation is far more complicated than that. It's about the origins and dissemination of language on the internet. It's about whether attribution of a meme still matters if the meme is part of a larger collective community that all too often struggles to retain its linguistic and cultural autonomy. And it may even be about the basic question of what black identity really is online.

Dem Linguistics

For members of the Black Twitter community, pop culture hashtags have evolved in a very specific and culturally significant way. When a popular TV show is airing, for example, everyone else on Twitter might be live-tweeting it using the standard hashtag — usually the show title or an abbreviated version of it, like #TWD for The Walking Dead or #GoT for Game of Thrones. But Black Twitter tends to use specific, community-centric hashtags.

These hashtags serve multiple purposes. They provide a space for blerds and black fans on Twitter to consume pop culture without other voices intruding on the conversation. They allow for easy, informal group conversation that feels less public than other heavily trafficked hashtags. And, through the naming of the hashtags themselves, they allow Black Twitter users to celebrate a community dialectic.

Over the past few years, Black Twitter has spawned numerous hashtags for various weekly live-tweet sessions. The hashtags generally incorporate #Dem and #Dat as part of their names — partly a reappropriation and celebration of black dialectic, and partly an ironic, satirized throwback to the clunky, racist way "black" dialect has been stylized in text by white writers over many generations.

Here is just a sampling of the many frequently used hashtags you can find on Black Twitter in any given week: #DemThronez for Game of Thrones, #DemDeads for The Walking Dead, #DemDreadz for Penny Dreadful, #DeyWalking for Fear the Walking Dead, #DatFlash for The Flash, #DemBows and #DatTotem for Arrow, #DatBot for Mr. Robot#DemClones for Orphan Black, #DatMurda for How to Get Away With Murder, and, of course, #DemThrones.

According to a recent article in Tech Insider, #DemThrones has been around since 2012. The article, which has since been updated with a correction, originally incorrectly claimed that the concept behind the hashtag was originally created by Rod Morrow of the popular podcast The Black Guy Who Tips. It also originally noted that the purveyor of the hashtag's recent popularity is Jamie Broadnax, the creator, manager, and public face of the popular Twitter feed, podcast, and website Black Girl Nerds. (Disclosure: Broadnax and I are Twitter friends.)

To some extent, black nerd culture has evolved online as a specific identity. Blerd culture as an internet subgroup enjoyed an early moment of self-identification in 2010 when black fans rallied around actor and hip-hop artist Donald Glover's ploy to play Spider-Man. Glover may have only partially achieved his goal, but his open identification as a black nerd was powerful, and the social media boost to the blerd community hasn't really waned since.

Meanwhile, Broadnax decided to claim the moniker "black girl nerd" for herself after searching for the phrase and realizing there were no results — meaning, no community of geeky black women supporting and networking with each other online. The rise of Broadnax's social media platform coincided with the rise of blerd-specific hashtags — often because Broadnax has personally spearheaded the use of many of the hashtags among her followers.

As Tech Insider notes, the #DemThrones hashtag has been gaining visibility of late, becoming a trending topic during two recent episodes of the series' sixth season.

But not everyone was happy to see the #DemThrones hashtag earn recognition — specifically, the men who say they created the entire linguistic usage behind it and other common hashtags on Black Twitter.

One podcast versus all of Twitter

Since 2011, a small podcast called FiyaStarter, a spinoff of the largely defunct satirical website of the same name, has been producing running weekly pop culture and sports commentary. On Wednesday, May 18, FiyaStarter hosts TKO, Basa, and KBadds introduced episode 231 of the podcast. The hosts asserted that Tech Insider's statements about the origins of the #DemThrones hashtag were wrong, and that both the direct hashtag and the "Dem" and "Dat" usage had come from a dialectic originally coined on FiyaStarter by the trio.

The hosts discussed the Tech Insider article in the broader context of habitually seeing their work appropriated by media outlets and circulated throughout the internet without credit. As TKO put it, they were tired of "sitting on the outside of the credit bureau." Host Basa acknowledged that Broadnax, who started out as a pop culture fan, was outside of this professional media trend and didn't know any of the FiyaStarter podcasters personally, but criticized her for appropriating their dialectic for her hashtag usage, even though she herself probably didn't talk that way in real life:

Does she talk like that with her friend? 'Cause that's how the fuck we talk . . . We been doing that 'dat' and 'dem' shit since ['97, '98] 'cause I was trying to make niggas mad . . . That's been our whole shit, like we think that shit is funny. Now everybody tryin' to make people mad and shit. So we've had our footprint all over the fucking internet and, and we're just tired of not getting fucking credit, dawg.

Basa insisted that the FiyaStarter habit of using these colloquial nicknames preceded Twitter and the concept of hashtags by years, first offline and then on the FiyaStarter website, and that Broadnax's usage was "frustrating":

She is aware that that type of talking did not originate from her . . . Her profile is being raised from doing some shit she had no input in creating. That's not cool, and that shit is no longer tenable for us . . . We are not a fucking, like, comedy buffet for people to come and eavesdrop on and go take that shit to all these Black Twitter nerds . . . and everybody taking credit but us. Make up ya'll own shit from now on, dawg.

In a lengthy joint email to Vox, TKO, Basa, and KBadds explained that they had deliberately adopted the exaggerated stylized language years ago when they launched the FiyaStarter website:

When we started the first incarnation of, our goal was to communicate our "blackness" to other black people. We love the way black people talk when we are with each other in our comfort zones, when our guards are down and the jokes are flowing. So a lot of that language found its way into the pieces we wrote for our site.

As corroboration, they referred to a 2005 FiyaStarter review of the movie Constantine in which they referred to Keanu Reeves as "Dat 'Nu."

[M]ostly, it was intended to add some humor to our conversations. That was why we began speaking that way. Instead of talking about racism, we’d talk about "dat ‘cism." It just lightens the conversation. It’s funny, It’s silly. That’s all.

After they closed the website and replaced it with the podcast, "that verbal shorthand followed." Now, they it admit it's too late to "put the genie back in the bottle" due to the overwhelming popularity of the "Dem" and "Dat" hashtags, but they stand by their request for recognition and acknowledgement:

You can’t tell people who ran with our shorthand that #DemThrones #DemAgents #DemClones #DatFlash, etc. isn’t based off our content. They are as protective of it as we should have been in the first damn place. They get as much joy from it as we do. And that is wonderful. They want to continue using it and we want that, too. But . . . if you must use our material on your platforms, can you please just drop the attitude and give us a shout? Like, just let us know that you know what's up. We gotta be doormats for people to be cool with us? That’s a really familiar feeling for a black person, right? We’ve all felt that, right, y’all?

On Thursday, May 19, Broadnax responded in a series of tweets to the podcast episode, saying she had never claimed ownership of the hashtag but acknowledged the FiyaStarter creators' frustration.

She announced she would no longer be using the "DemThrones" hashtag for her weekly live-tweets, though she would not be dropping other uses of the "Dem" and "Dat" hashtags for other shows. Her community eventually settled on #ThronesYall as a suitable replacement for this week's live-tweet session. Her followers, however, were reluctant to accept the basis of FiyaStarter's criticism.

The prevailing theory among blerds seemed to be that crediting the general use of a hashtag didn't have to be a big deal. And plenty of Broadnax's followers also pointed out that the #DemThrones hashtag's use of "Dem" and "Dat" was part of a general dialectic:

But plenty of FiyaStarter's followers and supporters praised the podcasters for standing up for ownership over the things they had created.

The success of the hashtag is proof that the viral meme is more powerful than its creator

The FiyaStarter podcasters were quick to acknowledge, both on Twitter and on the podcast, that no one deliberately stole the hashtag from them, and that Morrow, who had gotten credit for the linguistic style after using it on his Black Guy Who Tips podcast, had consistently attributed it to them. They told Vox they "deeply apologized" to Morrow for being critical of him after he had borrowed their material with attribution for his podcasts:

Over the years, every time one of his fans or the fans of other podcasters who know Rod would attribute our material to Rod and other podcasters, these fans would flat-out dismiss, ignore, and discount Rod's corrections. He would tell them it's our thing, but he became one man trying to extinguish a forest fire.

In one sense, this clash over language and attribution is about the basic way cultural spread happens online. But there also seems to be an element of geek shaming in the attitude the FiyaStarter podcasters have displayed toward blerds. When asked about this, TKO, Basa, and KBadds told Vox in their joint email that they weren't comfortable with the online blerd community's discourse, which they feel has attempted to distance the blerd identity from other forms of blackness.

[Y]es, we did intend to shame some members of the "blerd" community. We believe that subsections of blackness are ultimately destructive ways of "othering" ourselves in the eyes of the larger society. Black "nerds" or "geeks" are not unicorns. They’re not social pariahs. They’re not a special kind of black. They’re not BLACK+ . . . We are ALL black. Why create false spaces to distance yourselves from regular ol' black?

Consider: we have read, watched and listened to self-described "blerds" absolutely shit on Tyler Perry for the content he creates (content that, ironically, is primarily enjoyed by black women), often citing his "harmful" portrayals of blackness. And they mercilessly ridicule his audience (BLACK WOMEN) for patronizing him. Why? What is the purpose? It is much more than simply not liking someone’s art. It's looking down on a kind of blackness with which you don't want to be associated. It's wack.

So, to see these high-minded "others" taking content from us common black folks, after just assuming it originated in their "community"—and was therefore okay to TAKE—did not go over well with us.

It did devalue our work. It erased our work. We had to speak up.

Broadnax, however, told Vox she felt the podcasters' primary motivation for attacking her use of the hashtag was not a stance of cultural protest, but one of jealousy of "successful Black woman in the internet."

"It's a threat to the male ego and also for other Black women in this same space [who] feel like I'm their competition," she said. "It's very frustrating. People don't understand solidarity is what fosters change and grows community."

She added that her plans to discontinue using the hashtag were firm. "I'm not in the business of promoting someone who is hateful of me and the work I do."

On Twitter, April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and has experienced similar problems with attribution, spoke at length about the hashtag debate. She said she understood the desire for credit but noted that the FiyaStarter hosts chose to attack Broadnax instead of simply clarifying the error with the Tech Insider journalist — who had also exacerbated the problem by failing to verify his assumptions:

The blerd community went on to have plenty of fun using the #ThronesYall hashtag:

Even though Broadnax has ceased to use #DemThrones, its fellow "Dem" and "Dat" hashtags will most likely continue to proliferate the internet with each passing episode of popular television. One one level, this might be seen as a clear victory for the power of the viral meme and majority usage.

But if the hosts of FiyaStarter can't put the genie back in the bottle and remove their stylized dialectic from common usage, then surely the impact of the discussion works both ways. Now that it's been defiantly raised, the question of who the "Dem" and "Dat" hashtags are actually for will linger — even if the answer is, ultimately, "everyone."

Update: This article has been updated to remove a tweet by user request and to clarify that the Tech Insider article has since been updated.