One of the most tried-and-true elements of Black culture throughout the diaspora, and a staple in hip-hop culture, is the tradition of sampling: taking pieces of cultural legacies and finding ways to amplify, repurpose or reshape them in imaginative ways to service the needs of the moment. Trends change, mediums evolve, and platforms may shift, but Black communities worldwide have found ways to create a digital ecosystem that reflects their lived interactions. The oft-scrutinised phenomenon that is Black Twitter is yet another iteration of that modulation, where Black users lean on past conversations — recycling references such as “meet me in Temecula,” “N*gger navy,” and “a stack a month” into neverending utility — while simultaneously engaging in requisite humour, mutual care and dark critique of the ominous present. Through organising efforts, the amplification of underreported topics, and the promotion of new cultural trends on a regular basis, Black Twitter allows for the collective imagining of a Black future.
But now, as the future of Twitter is in flux with a widely disliked new leader at the helm (at least, if a recent sustained booing session at a Dave Chappelle stand-up show is any indication), the question at the forefront of online discourse is what has Black Twitter become, and where is it going?
“Nobody knew Twitter would become like Twitter when it came out [in 2006],” says André Brock, a professor of Black digital media studies at Georgia Tech in the US. The platform was a decade away from evolving into the mature app that it is today. Since then, it has evolved from a 140-character text limit to 280, introduced a quote tweet format that facilitates call-and-response and is now complete with embedded gif searches, audio notes, live audio chats and video streams — it also has nearly 330 million monthly users. When Twitter started, people texted the infamous 40404 shortcode number to post tweets from mobile devices. Now Twitter serves as both a social and information hub that is collaborative, influential, and extractive. Yet, fears of the platform’s impending demise brought on by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of the platform for $44 billion USD and the cascading blunders that have erupted since he has taken the reins — from the mass layoffs, increased feature bugs, and constant crisis management taking place through his personal Twitter timeline — has raised many inquiries as to what the core of Black Twitter is and its future.
The fact that somebody racist takes charge of a space that we inhabit, doesn't necessarily mean that we'll flee. We don't do white flight.
André Brock, professor of Black digital media studies
“A well-built mechanism in certain things and certain policies, especially in community building should not have shattered this fast. Those problems had to have existed before Elon,” explains Sydette Harry, a researcher and subject matter expert in informational health and people-centred technology. “The fact that we put up with it because [Twitter] had that shine and that caché, and we had the celebrities for a while, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a problem.” These issues range from an uptick in targeted harassment and hate speech, platforming of controversial figures, and bugs in the usability of the app, ranging from timeline refresh issues to filters failing. From Harry’s perspective, the emphasis on centring Musk, as opposed to determining how to protect the people who have thrived on the platform and the conversations that have resonated the most, reflects a lack of focus on Black women and other marginalised groups who have long rung the alarm on the platform’s usability. “Our existence – from intersectional analyses, from intersectional experience — often destroys their ability of saviourdom and the eternal good and being that high-minded person,” Harry points out. Twitter has allowed many harmful trends to propagate throughout the last decade — notably, surveillance of organising and harassment of visible media figures, online personalities, and activists. There have been craven attempts to nebulously define "Black Twitter" and consistently extract from it as part of a "culture beat" in mass media at the expense of Black users. One notorious such example has been Buzzfeed, at one point valued at over a billion US dollars, which generated an endless feed of listicles and features based on viral Black Twitter material.
Twitter itself has worked to harness the Black community of Twitter, promoting via its employee resource group Blackbirds that there are “algorithms within Twitter’s API that could help them ‘surface exactly who Black Twitter is and what they’re talking about,’” according to Mark Luckie, who once worked as part of Twitter’s journalism and media team. This has also resulted in rendering bad faith narratives on contemporary society based on a misinterpretation of occurrences on people’s timelines. Take the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen; it was originally intended to point out that it takes white women experiencing harm for coalition building to begin in feminist circles, but evolved into a referendum on how valid frustrations from Black feminists foster a “toxic” and “repressive climate.” While Harry notes that not all action has been malevolent, she references an adage which says, “after time, there is no difference between disinterest and malice.”
Brock, who refers to Black Twitter as a “discourse collective,” posits that Black users will not be pushed to leave the platform until legal or regulatory interference eliminates other options. “The fact that somebody racist takes charge of a space that we inhabit, doesn't necessarily mean that we'll flee. We don't do white flight,” Brock says. “While there will be a trickle of folk who can afford to, and don't mind what they will lose when they leave Black Twitter…we’re going to be here for years.”
Who has benefitted from Black Twitter?
As a faithful Twitter user since 2010 — transitioning from my time as a faithful blog commenter — I have seen the application navigate through many highs and lows. From highs like #FollowFridays to #TwitterAfterDark and live-tweeting TV events such as Scandal, Insecure and Game of Thrones, to #HasJustineLandedYet, #PaulasBestDishes, and the acclaimed Zola thread to the groundswell (and eventual discord) of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Lekki Toll Gate massacre in Nigeria. There is plenty to lose; while Black Twitter may not represent a formalised community — which implies a unified set of interests, goals, and accountability practices — there is a vast swath of power across the Black digital experience that cannot be ignored, from the more quotidian absurdities to the transformative moments that have been documented the world over.
Twitter has also offered many Black professionals platforms they previously never had access to – present company included – allowing them to make their way through the bottlenecks of creative industries that manage to systematically exclude Black working-class people from the conversation. “I credit everything to [Twitter],” says Hanna Phifer, a culture writer with a prominent Twitter following. “For a short bit, I tried to go the traditional route of just reaching out to editors or pitching and stuff like that -- I just would not get anything back.” Phifer’s first byline opportunity arose because a mutual follower reached out to her and offered her the opportunity to publish something at Variety, and more opportunities for commissions soon followed, from Harper’s Bazaar to Refinery29. Her current permalancer role at xoNecole.com — where she has done features on everyone from gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to former video vixen Karrine Steffans — emerged from a mutual connection on Twitter, Brooke Obie, who is the Editor-in-Chief. “There have been so many times where I'm just threading about something that I just sort of thought of a second ago, and then I'll get a DM from an editor like, Hey, do you want to turn this into an essay?” Phifer recounts. “I even heard Doreen St. Felix talking on an old podcast where she said that her writing career sort of started out like that — so you know, we have these behemoths in our generation of writing who we might not have if it wasn't for Twitter and for our ability to just sort of put our thoughts out there on a whim.” While Phifer doesn’t feel that Twitter is as essential to her career success today, her current concerns are more for emerging writers who are not as connected to established networks.
Like many Black users of the platform, however, Phifer doesn’t see it as exclusively a vehicle for brand curation. A child of the social media era, Phifer came of age in the social media era — going from Facebook in 2007 to Tumblr circa 2009 before Twitter, and coming of age in the era of high visibility tragedies such as Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial. Phifer perceives her timeline as much as an extension of her personality as she does a promotional tool for her career. “I don't self-regulate any more than how people just naturally self-regulate,” she says. It’s one of the nuanced beauties of Black Twitter interaction: engaging in engrossing conversations about the Black mundane, from low vibrational dinner plates to bad haircuts, or making memes out of live-streamed Verzuz performances “Some people still argue that Black Twitter is only at its best when it's protesting social injustice, or when it's empowering people to vote, and I say that's a whole lie,” said Brock, who acknowledges the significance of the transformative social justice moments that have found their nascence on Twitter. “If I don't laugh with you, I'm not gonna support you when shit goes bad.”
In Harry’s purview, Twitter is yet another platform that has fallen prey to two critical failures common with social media spaces: failing to recognise that supporting the community is just as critical to the product as the actual platform itself. This affects everything from failing to understand critical functions for users, to white users and media figures having a predatory relationship with some of the most marginalised communities on the platform. “You’ll see that in the life cycle a lot of times with Black culture — it goes from what’s happening, I hate it, it's not really human to oh my god, it's the greatest thing ever,” Harry says. “The dehumanisation line, whether it is a minimisation or a maximisation, always avoids the point where you become human and have to interact. You're either to be subjected or you are to be surveilled.”
Harry likens the fascination with Black Twitter to a Jiminy Cricket, where white users look to Black English-speaking groups to serve as their collective conscience, from #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite. “There is an expectation of [Black people] knowing exactly what to do and exactly the right thing to do — that is not human,” she adds. “They have always depended on us to change it, and that's their actual question. If Twitter goes, how are we changing the world next?” The irony is that platform visibility that translates into material power is not something Black people control; however, Black users can regulate how outsiders on the app interact in conversations and maximise their agency when choosing who to interact with.
Where does Black Twitter go from here?
As to where Black Twitter will go, that answer is more complex; different subsections have different needs in community, whether it is platform maintenance versus being able to have "water cooler talk" or being able to remain "on trend”. Currently, there is no mature application that exists that can replicate Twitter’s feature set. Moreover, new and emerging social media companies will not have a decade to gradually evolve their channels over time. In 2022, there are accepted best practices when it comes to trust and safety, moderation and community building, and are a bare minimum when it comes to soliciting the full-throated engagement of any marginalised group on the internet. Mastodon, a microblog with similar features to Twitter but with different “federated” servers for users to sign up on and interact across — akin to how different email services speak to each other — has already presented a litany of issues in its community building and safety for marginalised groups. Hive, which promises to show posts in chronological order, free of any algorithmic interference, has infrastructure and resource issues that place it at risk for data exposure. Instagram was already struggling with active user retention with its recent bombardment of enhancements — from a heightened emphasis on Reels, an increased focus on shopping and targeted ads, and algorithm changes that have been detrimental to content creators. TikTok’s video-focused modality presents a shift in content and increased barriers to entry for those who are used to Twitter’s text-dominant apparatus. Somewhere Good, a Black-owned app, has been building its own alternative to social media for some time — paired with a physical location in Brooklyn — but it is focused on cultivating a social audio experience, and not as much a space that facilitates a rapid-fire creator economy. “We're trying to bring this together in a world and in conditions that actually do not seem to want us to collect our thoughts,” says Harry when asked about the prospect of defining a new social media haven for Black voices beyond Twitter. “[Non-Black people] want to do it within seconds, and it's not going to be that if we want to think about this deeply. We're going to be talking about it for a while.”
Twitter is not dead yet, in spite of Elon’s ongoing blunders – not as long as Black people are willing to call it home and the proverbial lights are still on.
Twitter functions as a digital watercooler, where one can take in the view and consume and interact at their own pace; that level of facility is near impossible to replicate. The recent Twitter funeral is not only a perfect example of Black people managing to find the dark humour in remarkably unclear circumstances, but also of how Twitter is uniquely formatted for interactions that are simultaneously loose, collaborative, and dynamic. For those of us who thrive in expressing ourselves in off-the-cuff formats, it is unlikely that we will be leaving the app until it is a significant threat to our safety or personal data (which, given Musk’s blunders over the last month, is not impossible). Jack being in charge never dictated the quality of the experience — it is how we maximised our relationship with the space despite it not being intended with Black people in mind. Twitter is not dead yet, in spite of Elon’s ongoing blunders — not as long as Black people are willing to call it home and the proverbial lights are still on.
Despite the hesitancy in prematurely declaring the future of the Black digital experience, for those who have been early adopters of Black cybercultures, there is no doubt that a collective space will appear somewhere new in the wake of Twitter’s ultimate demise. Some of the earliest communities to adopt Black Twitter came from the message boards of OkayPlayer and comments sections of Crunk & Disorderly, YBF, LiveJournal, and the rap blog heyday of 2DopeBoyz and NahRight. Before Twitter, BlackPlanet thrived.
It is hard to see how any of the current platforms meet that need currently, but something new always emerges. No matter the domain, Black people will always find a way to satisfy the extant desire to connect with one another, reshaping the cultural touch points created and accumulated in the digital landscape over the years. It will be up to others to decide whether or not Twitter is the only platform in which they afford validation of Black life in all of its multiplicities — from the academic to the cathartic to the ratchet, and everything in between.