Black Twitter is Dead… But Its Spirit Will Live On
Jabari Evans / University of South Carolina
As an academic who studies social media and how Black people self-express, it would be an understatement to say that Twitter has been an extremely influential online space in both the amplification of Black voices and the call for justice in communities. Scholars like Andre Brock (2020) and Meredith Clark (2014) have noted specifically that “Black Twitter” is a network of culturally connected communicators using the platform to draw attention to issues of concern to black communities. In my own research, I have found that Black Twitter is a great example of how Black youth and young adults self-express and utilize media tools to perform civic engagement, social activism, or even just to be funny and have a safe space for themselves.
It’s a subculture that requires high contextual information, an appreciation for the experiences and practices of Black people and ongoing engagement with the conversations regarding them. Whether it is comedic responses to Jill Scott doing a risqué performance that simulates fellatio or Kanye West getting critiqued for wearing a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt, Black Twitter builds connection through both serious and light-hearted cultural conversations that might otherwise go unnoticed in mainstream media. I often say that Black Twitter is like the Black dorm at a predominantly white institution (PWI) – It has its own experiences, practices and discourse that support Black unity, but it operates and is sanctioned by a larger institution that is not necessarily structured to the best interests of its minority community members.
Though often regarded for its ability to provide a sense of belonging via comic relief, Black Twitter has played a significant role in driving conversations around more serious matters impacting Black communities. This was clearly seen in Ferguson, MO when many prominent Black community organizers, thought leaders and entertainers sparked a national dialog after the murder of Michael Brown and series of actions that many believed to be re-imagining of the Civil Rights Movement in America (Jackson & Foucault-Welles, 2015). Beyond advocating for justice in incidents where law enforcement has wrongfully murdered a Black person, Black Twitter has also helped to highlight issues of Black women, college students and Black queer communities. For example, Twitter was a major resource in the amplifying the voices of Black trans women through the hashtag #Girlslikeus, which was started after the wrongful imprisonment of CeCe McDonald for self-defense during an assault. Similarly, #MeToo is a movement started by Tarana Burke that has spawned a large amount of attention, bringing awareness toward the rampant yet unreported sexual assault of Black women. In tracing another example of young Black people using #hashtags to change the culture of formal institutions, Clarence Wardell (2014) examined the 2013 #BBUM campaign undertaken by Black students at the University of Michigan hoping to address what they perceived as a racially hostile campus environment.
Twitter was not created with Black people in mind. This has been determined not only from scholars and researchers (e.g., Benjamin, 2019; Marwick, 2013), but it’s also been communicated to me by technologists who were there at its inception. That said, it is miraculous how Black Twitter has provided us with imaginaries for the possibility of democratizing public discourse through social media platforms. Technology provides creative solutions for the problems of Black people when Black people can render themselves legible in technologies. So, if we’re thinking from a utopian point of view, we can simply look at Black Twitter as being a valuable case study on the possibilities of how Blackness should be developed into technology rather than after thoughts.
However, in 2023, the pessimist in me believes it is also safe to say that Black Twitter is no longer the vehicle it once was and hasn’t been relevant for Black teens in some time. Many in the millennial Black intelligentsia are upset that Twitter has continually changed its platform in ways that inhibit Black voices to be amplified in the ways that they were before. To that end, the first few months of Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter have been rocky. In the words of the great Christopher Wallace, they want that ‘old thing back.’ Even so, substantive cultural conversations (Outrage over the shooting of Tyre Nichols, for example) are continuing to be held on the platform and allow Black people to be communal and communicate messages outside the control of the white gaze.
That said, I don’t believe Elon Musk owning Twitter is in and of itself, the problem. The problem is that researchers, tech designers, and policymakers that are feverishly seeking to figure out how to better prevent the spread of hate speech within algorithms (see Noble, 2018) and to positively harness social media for corporate accountability (Pacelli and Heese, 2022), haven’t figured out how to center their work towards the needs of Black people. The real problem is that Black Twitter doesn’t have any infrastructure to be iterated on and many Black thought leaders on Twitter may be forced to rebuild their audiences in ways that they may not know how to yet. The real problem is Black Twitter is dead and people who are Twitter famous can’t let it go.
However, I also don’t believe that today’s Black youth want to express themselves the way my generation did in 2010. Our notions of social norms, privacy, and what constitutes entertaining content are different now. Enabled by digital technology, Black folk (and other minorities) have new opportunities to create and broadcast knowledge. This shouldn’t be deemed in a utopian way either, but lessons learned from Black Twitter can provide a blueprint for newer platforms to intentionally provide a continuous stream of information from the Black perspective to Black people who desire to consume it. In that sense, Elon Musk might be doing Black people a favor by undervaluing Black Twitter.
What I’m arguing here is that the creativity of Black youth and young adults is such that if they don’t have Twitter as an outlet to hold cultural conversations or building community, they’ll be okay. History has shown that Black folk will always be inventive in digital communication and finding a sense of belonging on social media platforms. Black folk will find a way to continue to be dynamically Black on the internet. I dream of the day I can say the next version of the community built on Blackness is better than Black Twitter because it will be built by Black people. In that sense, maybe it isn’t Black Twitter but a Black-owned version of Twitter that stands to come out of this moment in time. Now that would truly be dope…
Finally, for all of the commentary that has highlighted how millennial, funny and college educated Black people utilized Twitter to organize and give one another a safe space to communicate, I believe that there are still other Black youth communities that sit outside of the respectability politics of that faction that have been excluded as even being considered a part of Black Twitter’s nucleus. Some of the most beautiful cultural organizing I have seen was happening among gang-affiliated youth on the Southside of Chicago memorializing slain teenager Odee Perry by creating a hashtag naming his housing project #oblock in his memory. Through those in Chicago’s Hip-Hop community, this hashtag has been used to traverse terrain and unify young people who were once rivals to make calls to stop senseless violence in their communities. In thinking about democratization via digital tools and its affordances for Black people, I believe this is the kind of unorthodox case study that needs to be examined to accomplish digital democracy. And for all the joking and roasting common on Black Twitter that results in trending topics, the comedic sharing being done are not always entirely “politically correct” and still contain their share of misogyny, homophobia, colorism, classism, and ableism. Though I benefit from Black Twitter’s tendency to amplify Black intelligentsia, future spaces that seek to extend on the phenomena of Black Twitter will need better support for those people who sit at the margins of the margins. Besides creating spaces for diversity teams and hiring more Black technologists, I guess what I’m hoping is that Twitter and other social media platforms look at Black intersectionality as a strength rather than a weakness and see these communities not as just power users but those with the potential to be powerful users. This means doing more than inviting Black people to the “dance for digital citizenship” but also giving them the aux cord to somewhat influence the outcome of their experiences on social media
- Via Mark Dewolf (medium.com)
- Rapper Lil Boosie tweets a controversial response to Kanye West wearing a “White Lives Matter” Shirt.
- A since-deleted tweet by Florida State Representative Maxwell Frost after the death of Tyre Nichols. (author’s screengrab)
Benjamin, R. (2019). Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. New York: Polity Books.
Brock Jr, A. (2020). Distributed blackness: African-American Cybercultures. New York City: New York University Press.
Clark, M. D. (2014). To tweet our own cause: A mixed-methods study of the online phenomenon” Black Twitter” (Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
Heese, J. and Pacelli, J. (forthcoming). The Monitoring Role of Social Media (December 20, 2022). Review of Accounting Studies. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4278696 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4278696
Jackson, S. J., & Foucault Welles, B. (2016). # Ferguson is everywhere: Initiators in emerging counterpublic networks. Information, Communication & Society, 19(3), 397-418.
Marwick, A. E. (2013). Status update: Celebrity, publicity, and branding in the social media age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression. In Algorithms of oppression. New York: New York University Press.
Wardell, C. (2014). BBUM and new media blacktivism. U. Gasser, R. Faris, & R. Heacock, Internet monitor, 111-112.