A blessing and a curse: The rich history behind ‘Black Twitter’
From Black Voices to MySpace to Instagram, black creativity has defined social media from the start
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an epic poem from 1798 about a disastrous sea voyage. In the story, an albatross, a symbol of good luck, leads the ship out of icy waters. But when a sailor kills the bird, their luck turns and the rest of the crew punishes the sailor by tying the bird around his neck.
In 2020, there’s a digital bird representing the duality of curses and blessings: Twitter. The social media platform has blessed careers, jump-started social justice movements and created cultural trends. This has been especially true for black users who have used Twitter to circumvent traditional channels to get their voices heard.
Simply put, black folk have found a way to use social media to change the world. Shiggy dance crazes. Phrases such as “On fleek.” Providing platforms for artists such as Drake and Gucci Mane to thrive. Civil rights movements. Surviving R. Kelly. #MeToo. #OscarsSoWhite. That’s all black people loving, creating, thinking, rebelling on social media.
From presidential elections to reactions to TV shows, it’s all there at our fingertips. Countries have been toppled, careers have started and ended, thanks to what happens on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. And at the heart of these moments are black people — the leading purveyors of American culture and the harbingers of cool.
Social media is also full of anti-black trolling and trauma for minorities, even as we populate these spaces with our ingenuity and fanatic participation. As a result, some black people are seeking refuge in more controlled spaces, such as the GroupMe messaging app and private Facebook subgroups, or even cutting off social media altogether. Now, while the country is in the throes of a pandemic and social distancing, social media is as vital as anytime before and an even bigger factor in our everyday lives.
How did we get here? How did these spaces become so toxic for black Americans? And why did we flock to them in the first place?
It all started in a newsroom a few miles from Walt Disney World.
Barry Cooper was a sports reporter for the Orlando Sentinel during Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie year in 1992-93. The newspaper’s parent, Tribune Company, had a partnership with AOL and was publishing articles on the upstart online provider. During the early ’90s, media companies were figuring out who used the World Wide Web and how they consumed news content, so analytics were critical. Cooper, who had taken an interest in digital media, realized something about his sports coverage online.
“We … noticed that a lot of the traffic was coming from black readers,” said Cooper, who now works as a digital media consultant. “So [Tribune Company] launched a site in 1995 that catered directly to the African American community, and called it Black Voices.”
Cooper and his small team of reporters produced articles about national news relevant to black communities, often focused on happenings at historically black colleges and universities. Almost immediately, the site was leading traffic across AOL-owned properties.
The surge in popularity was accompanied by a community of now-legendary chat rooms that helped set the blueprint for what we see now in African American social media use. They covered topics from politics and sports to relationships and current events. The Black Voices chat rooms provided a place for African Americans to find community with like-minded people, as well as discover new perspectives on blackness they wouldn’t necessarily find in the mainstream media.
The big hit? The BBW room, as in beautiful black women. As is often the case, black women were holding the conversations and generating the traffic that made Black Voices so popular — and everyone else followed.
“They’d talk all night about everything from TV shows to random relationship topics,” Cooper said. “The rooms provided that sense of community, where you can reach people like you from all over the country who have the same challenges and perspectives. That made the whole digital thing attractive to black people.”
During this time, AOL users were charged based on how much time they spent online, and the results were lucrative. “People were spending $400 or $500 a month on AOL and a large part of the time was spent on Black Voices,” Cooper said. “Black consumers, when they’re passionate about something, they spend what it takes to get it.”
The Tribune Company saw the site overperforming and put $5 million toward making Black Voices its own entity. The site had offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York that produced news and videos with the taste and concern of black consumers in mind, covering everything from the O.J. Simpson trial to All Eyez On Me.
“When we look back on Black Voices … we were doing a lot of things before they were done in the mainstream,” Cooper said. “We had original content and would go out on the street and interview black people about things going on in the culture. We were doing some YouTube stuff before YouTube got in the game. We think now about how well Facebook has done and all of it was built on community. We were building that same type of community.”
Black Voices was sold to AOL/Time Warner in 2004 and is now a part of the Huffington Post brand. Gone are its message boards. The new Black Voices is more focused on editorial, offering op-eds and news about everything from Black Lives Matter to who rocked the best looks at the Oscars. Though it came under fire two years ago for having a staff that didn’t necessarily reflect the “Black” in Black Voices, the legacy of the chat rooms looms large.
THE MESSAGE BOARDS
As internet use expanded exponentially over the ’90s and early 2000s, black communities began forming spontaneously on the opinionated and rapid-fire message boards that accompanied rap music sites such as the still-popular AllHipHop, founded by Greg Watkins and Chuck Creekmur in 1998, and SOHH (Support Online Hip Hop), created by Felicia Palmer and Steven Samuel in 1996. These boards provided space for passionate rap fans to discuss their favorite artists — and even hold rap battles, in written form.
Lipstick Alley, which began in the early 2000s as an offshoot message board on former Tennessee Titan Eddie George’s personal website, of all places, is one of the internet’s most influential African American forums. It features news, sports, celebrity gossip, fashion and hair care from an African American perspective, and is also a hub for unverified VIP tales. The message boards there are raw, but can be the birthplace of mainstream breaking news.
Black users could be themselves in these safe spaces before safe spaces were a thing. Here, they didn’t have to worry about bots or trolls or egg avatars that would use racial slurs.
Two of the most impactful and lasting communities are Okayplayer and NikeTalk. Here, black people have shared information on everything from retro Jordans to the newest Nike tech gear, and both coddled and critiqued up-and-coming artists such as Wale, J. Cole and Desus.
Now a bestselling author and producer on shows such as mixed-ish, The Last O.G. and Scrubs, Nissel, back then, was a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who was working at a sleep clinic while building websites on the side. “He said, ‘We have a little bit of a problem.’ He put Okayplayer.com on the [1999 Things Fall Apart] album, but he didn’t actually have a website. Plus, he was about to go on tour, so he needed me to put something together.”
Nissel, who met Questlove while they were working telemarketing jobs in Philadelphia, had to put together a site for Roots fans quickly. She started with the idea that fans would want to get closer to the group and learn about aspects of their lives not seen in music videos or their rare TV appearances.
“I’m like a kid sister to a lot of those guys and it gave me access that most people didn’t have,” she said. “I was their first introduction to the internet. They’d trust me to put their words out there.”
Nissel would dig around Questlove’s house and find a piece of memorabilia — receipts, drumsticks, clothing — and ask him to tell a story about it and put that story on the site. “I knew that if you went in someone’s house and saw their record collection and if you have a lot of that music in common, then you’re going to be friends,” Nissel said.
The Roots won a Grammy for the Things Fall Apart single “You Got Me,” and had put together a community of artists such as Common, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, who recorded together and amassed a passionate fan base. Okayplayer allowed those fans to almost touch their favorite artists through their computer screens.
“OKP was the first place where you could talk to other black people from all over the country who shared your experiences and interests,” said rapper Phonte Coleman, who was a mainstay on the message boards even after his career took off as one-third of the rap group Little Brother. “OKP removed the stigma of talking to strangers on the internet because we had the shared bond of music. If you were a Prince fan, you could be on a forum of other Prince fans. OKP is where you can find bigger music nerds than me. And I’m a big music nerd.”
The message boards were divided into rooms similar to the AOL Black Voices chat rooms. “The Lesson” was for deep crate diggers who wanted to compare notes on their favorite artists. “Pass The Popcorn” is for movie lovers. There was a freestyle forum for rappers to write out bars and see who could rhyme better. And “General Discussion” was no holds barred or “f— Iraq,” as Coleman explained it.
Just as with Black Voices, black women were the engine driving Okayplayer. “So many of us go about our lives hoping to see other black people,” said Nissel. “For black women, the world could be exhausting to us. We just want to sit down with a glass of wine and beer and not have to comfort anybody else. This was the first space where we felt not alone.”
Little Brother, consisting of MC Phonte, rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, got their start posting music on the Okayplayer boards for immediate feedback. “It helped spread the word. I can’t overstate the importance those message boards had on our careers. OKP was like a baby version of SoundCloud.”
Coleman isn’t the only person whose career took off from the OKP boards. Desus and Mero, the late-night TV hosts, used to crack jokes on the boards as well. The Okayplayer message boards were the beginnings of what is now known as Black Twitter, where conversations about blackness and black influence really started to take shape.
Founder: Nelson Cabral
Current status: A prime location for sneakerheads
As Okayplayer was setting the tone for black subcultures, NikeTalk was paving the way for black influence in the corporate and fashion world.
NikeTalk, which has no official affiliation with the shoe brand, was formed in 1999 as a spot for sneaker enthusiasts to come together to speculate about upcoming shoes, show off their newest finds and pine for classic shoes they missed out on in previous years. If you’ve ever scoured the internet for a sold-out sneaker, then chances are you’ve ended up on NikeTalk. A sneaker wasn’t hot until it got the NikeTalk seal of approval (as well as from places such as the Sole Collector message boards, which are no longer in existence). And of course, the community was heavily occupied by black commenters.
“NikeTalk was definitely one of my main entry points into the internet,” said John Gotty, a veteran of the message board who went on to launch the now-defunct hip-hop site The Smoking Section. “I learned about downloading music. I learned about different shoe trends across the country. I made friends on that site.”
Much of sneaker culture as we know it — companies knowing which shoes to reissue, which features are popular and who should be the new signature athletes — came in part from perusing the NikeTalk message boards. The site also went beyond shoe talk, as fans of brands from Gucci to Champion compared notes. Designers such as Heron Preston Johnson, who started the Been Trill clothing company, were first seen soaking in the opinions of passionate wearers on NikeTalk.
Much like Okayplayer, NikeTalk also became a place for upcoming musical artists who wanted to test out their material and get immediate feedback. A young Wale would often be in the message boards posting music, debating with fans and posting about his love for SB Dunks. J. Cole would also post his music looking for feedback.
“I knew that if an artist like Kendrick Lamar was getting posted across different regions like the Midwest and South, then it was clear he would be the next big thing,” said Gotty.
NikeTalk, which still flourishes as a place for sneaker fans, is more than a cultural meeting place — it’s a lucrative spot for those entering the shoe resale market. “NikeTalk was my first experience running a business,” said Gotty. “We ran a reselling site called NDemand Conceptz. We’d go buy shoes in bulk and resell them before a lot of people were doing that. If there was a shoe sold-out a lot of places and we had access to them, we’d buy them in bulk, turn around and sell them online. All that started through meeting people on NikeTalk. It taught me that you can eat off of the internet.”
Both Okayplayer and NikeTalk are still active, vibrant communities. But they aren’t as populated as they were during their heyday, thanks to the mass exodus to Twitter and Facebook.
Founders: Chris DeWolfe, Tom Anderson, Jon Hart
Current status: A ghost town
Founder: Omar Wasow
Current status: Seeing a resurgence due to black users retreating from the toxicity of Twitter and Facebook
In 2003, a brave new world began in Beverly Hills, California: MySpace. Histories of the internet often skip from the message boards to Facebook and Twitter. But that overlooks the monster that was MySpace. It was the largest social media site in the world from 2005 to early 2008, and had more visitors than Google in the United States in 2006.
In its prime, MySpace gave users the ability to create their own pages and profiles with customizable pictures, friends lists and backgrounds. News of Facebook allowing personal information to be used without permission, and Twitter failing to protect users from abuse, has prompted some nostalgia for the days when MySpace ruled the digital world.
But black users didn’t run to MySpace out of the blue. Many were already using BlackPlanet, which had upward of 15 million users. BlackPlanet became the prototype for MySpace, as founder Omar Wasow told Complex in 2011: “The guys who started MySpace … looked at BlackPlanet as a model for MySpace and thought there was an opportunity to do a general market version of what BlackPlanet was.”
MySpace, though, appealed to a wider (i.e., not just black) audience. Black users flocked to MySpace and BlackPlanet as a means for pushing their profiles beyond that of message boards — customizing pages with selfies in tall tees and bling, while Soulja Boy boomed from computer speakers as soon as a page was opened.
And MySpace’s Top 8? The space on a page where users could pick their eight closest friends and significant others? That was the home of real-life high school and college drama that would last for days.
“You got to pour a little liquor out for MySpace,” Coleman said. “Everyone on OKP went straight to MySpace even though we were still on the boards, too.” Coleman was an example of someone who used the site to boost his profile and bring fans closer to his everyday life. While posting music on message boards and debuting songs on his MySpace page, he would also post hilarious blog entries on his MySpace profile about everything from liner notes and backstories to Little Brother albums to hilarious takes on white people’s reactions to him wearing fitted hats.
“We were never a big group in terms of a big record label machine behind us. We had to use every tool in that toolbox,” Coleman said. “I didn’t think anybody is going to read these posts. We saw more people are reading this than we realize. I was just using every tool that we had for us to get out there.”
MySpace’s and BlackPlanet’s lasting impact on the black community came from the fact that it allowed users to teach themselves a skill that’s invaluable on today’s internet: coding. Once users discovered what a little lightweight hacking could achieve, it was just a matter of digging through the internet for HTML and CSS codes to transform their pages.
“I started off literally just starting with the basic stuff,” said Paola Mendoza-Yu, a user experience designer in L.A. “I learned you could hijack the whole page. I made a new design every week. I was obsessed. … Years later I realized what I was doing was coding.”
The customizable MySpace and BlackPlanet pages encouraged creativity and self-expression (as evidenced by a BlackPlanet page of a high school-aged Kevin Durant that resurfaced in 2016), something African Americans are often discouraged from exhibiting in the real world.
MySpace and BlackPlanet helped create a generation of black kids who were coders without ever taking a class, developing a skill that allowed some of them to enter a space that is overwhelmingly white.
“I think that learning how to code empowers young black people and young black girls that they really can do and be anything,” said Markham, who teaches with Black Girls Code. “Tech has a way of lifting people out, allowing them to make a decent amount of money, and it doesn’t take years and years of training and upfront money like being a doctor would. The idea of being able to create something from beginning to end. It’s just really powerful.”
Like the message boards, MySpace fell victim to the popularity of Facebook. But there may be another reason for the shift, too. In the 2011 anthology Race After The Internet, Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd argued that a form of white flight was occurring among teens, driven by the perception that MySpace was becoming black. All the customized black pages on the platform led white users to leave for the more “elite” Facebook, which had previously only accepted college students. One notable exchange from her work sticks out:
I met Kat, a white 14-year-old from a comfortable background. We were talking about the social media practices of her classmates when I asked her why most of her friends were moving from MySpace to Facebook. Kat grew noticeably uncomfortable. She began simply, noting that ‘MySpace is just old now and it’s boring.’ But then she paused, looked down at the table, and continued. ‘It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever.’
The divide was backed up by demographic research. In 2009, marketing firm Nielsen Claritas found that wealthy individuals were 25% more likely to use Facebook while less affluent individuals are 37% more likely to be on MySpace. Intentionally or not, MySpace was the social media site for those who filled their pages with hip-hop, selfies and flamboyant page designs, while Facebook was for white and Asian users.
MySpace lost half of its subscribers in 2010 alone. By 2011, the company’s staff of 1,600 had dwindled to 200. By 2013, MySpace was 215th in total web traffic.
For years afterward, MySpace would be treated as a joke — a graveyard of old pages where selfies taken on flip phones, poor fashion choices and embarrassing childhood decisions reigned supreme. But the site once was much more. It was a home for black people to customize their experiences in ways that we haven’t seen on social media since.
“I don’t think there’s anything currently that allows you to express yourself like we were doing back then in MySpace,” said Mendoza-Yu. “We were exploiting a flaw in MySpace’s system. Facebook figured out [how] to get around that flaw. If I were 16 or 17, I don’t know where I would go to have the freedom online I had with MySpace.”
Added Markham: “The big social networks have stripped away the power from the user. You can’t customize the Facebook page. They’ve stripped away the personalization. … Even if kids are really aware of coding, it might not feel attainable.”
(It should also be mentioned that Tumblr, once a space for black creatives to share interests and ideas — and explore images of sexuality not found on mainstream adult sites — ended in 2018 by getting rid of its sexually explicit content. As a result, the space has become a haven for far-right users, making it less welcoming to the black users who helped popularize the site. Images of sexuality are banned but no such ban exists for swastikas, for instance. The platform is now owned by Automattic, the company that runs WordPress.)
Black creativity was the driving force of MySpace and BlackPlanet. Now, social media is largely run by the big two — Facebook and Twitter — for better or worse.
Founder: Mark Zuckerberg
Current status: A staple of social media that has become ground zero for debates over politics and privacy
Founders: Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger
Current status: Owned by Facebook. One of the current pillars of social media.
Facebook is used heavily by African Americans, especially in comparison to the total population. In 2018, Mark Luckie, a Facebook employee, posted a farewell memo that summarized the data on black usage, as well as the problems that black users and employees faced at Facebook:
“African Americans are more likely to use Facebook to communicate with family and friends daily, according to research commissioned by Facebook. 63% use Facebook to communicate with family, and 60% use Facebook to communicate with friends at least once a day, compared to 53% and 54% of the total population, respectively. 70% of black U.S. adults use Facebook and 43% use Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center. 55% of black millennials report spending at least one hour a day on social networking sites, 6% higher than all millennials, while 29% say they spend at least three hours a day, 9% higher than all millennials, Nielsen surveys found. Black people are driving the kind of meaningful social interactions Facebook is striving to facilitate.”
Especially since the 2016 presidential election, though, Facebook has developed a reputation as a breeding ground for false information, tampering and anti-black sentiment. Black users are more likely to be flagged for their posts than other users. The site has developed a reputation for being a place where black freedom of speech is quelled.
Despite all of these problems, Facebook has maintained its hold on black users. “I used to waste so much time on message boards, but now it’s my safe space from the internet,” Nissel said. “I’m in so many black women groups on Facebook. A lot of people are finding smaller communities within the bigger communities.”
Zuckerberg’s company, now in its third decade of existence, is one of the most recognized brands in the world, such as McDonald’s or Walmart. Facebook is also the site known for connecting families, where users can leave comments for aunts and uncles and share pics with grandparents. These safe spaces, and the time people have invested on the site, have made Facebook such a part of black life that it’s hard to imagine us turning away.
In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, which was known as a place to post pictures and captions. Since then, it has become a culture changer and one that is being jet streamed by black creatives. (Instagram has successfully positioned itself as an alternative to Facebook — only 29% of Americans know the platform is even owned by Facebook.)
Black teens make up the largest block of users on Instagram. One of the reasons for this is the type of technological access black Americans have compared with their white peers. Instagram (like Snapchat) is a mobile-only app, and for many black kids, their phones are their only connections to the internet. As a result, Instagram is the site they often flock to. And the places where black teens congregate often become spaces for innovation and trends.
Celebrities have also flocked to Instagram. When Beyoncé announces a pregnancy, she does it on Instagram. When Durant announces he’s leaving the Golden State Warriors, he does so on Instagram. When LeBron James wants you to know what album he’s listening to with a bottle of red wine, he does it on Instagram.
Instagram is also a place for black entrepreneurs and influencers to launch businesses and feed their families. For instance, Alexis Felder’s popular LexiWithTheCurls brand, highlighting travel and black hair products, has allowed her to flourish as a businessperson and name.
Felder gravitated to Instagram because of the community she built with other black women pushing and supporting one another. “Instagram is like a sorority for women of color,” she said. “It has helped me understand the power of collaboration. Three influencers are stronger than one.We have grown together and now we make money together.”
“Some of my influencer friends and I were amongst the first to tap into the travel market and work with tourism boards and travel-based companies,” she said. “I have gotten comped hotel stays in hotels and resorts all over the world. I have made money from beauty and lifestyle brands through my Instagram.”
Instagram is also a space for black media to tell stories outside of traditional newsrooms. Sites such as The Shade Room, with more than 18 million followers, and Baller Alert (more than 5 million) have taken their online communities directly to Instagram, posting news and celebrity interactions on their social media pages. The Shade Room, especially, is a social media version of Lipstick Alley, pushed by its ravenous fans and nonstop comments on every post.
As of late, Instagram has tried to curb the influence of individual users, moving toward algorithmic timelines similar to Facebook. The site has also pushed for getting rid of “likes,” which could harm the ability of black influencers to make money. There’s been wide concern over the idea of the Instagram influencer “bubble” bursting and how black brands stand to suffer.
“The one thing I don’t like about Instagram is that it’s superoversaturated now with influencers,” Felder said. “You have to go over and beyond to get attention or to get that next gig. I know one thing, if IG ever crashes or ends, a lot of people will lose a huge chunk of their income.”
Founders: Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams
Current status: The premier social media space for black conversations
Founders: Dom Hofmann, Rus Yusupov, and Colin Kroll
Current status: Shut down in 2016 after users left for YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat
It’s important to differentiate between the early days of Twitter and the social media giant we see now. I joined in 2009 and Twitter felt like a whole new world where message boards, comments sections of websites and communities that I’d formed online could converge in one place. Jokes would fly, drama would ensue and celebrities would interact with fans without much fear of repercussions or “dragging.” It was a place where Rihanna and Ciara had a public argument like they were one of us.
The content on the message boards, which previously had stayed in the undercurrent of American pop culture, now became a public spectacle. Okayplayer and NikeTalk users flocked to Twitter to expand their communities and talk about Prince albums or Foamposites with more people than before. MySpace users traded customization for an ability to use hilarious hashtags or the wittiest jokes to show off their creativity.
The rest of the world watched black users on Twitter and wanted to be a part of the culture. Articles popped up across the internet about “Black Twitter” and what these people of color were talking about online. Hashtags such as #IfSantaWasBlack would turn into hours-long roasting sessions in the tradition of playing the dozens, with pictorial references to classic black TV or movie moments populating the timeline. It was like one gigantic barbershop or salon joke marathon. But unlike on an OKP message board or Black Voices page, the world was able to watch.
Choire Sicha wrote about it for The Awl in 2009: “At the risk of getting randomly harshed on by the Internet, I cannot keep quiet about my obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter, an obsession I know some of you other white people share, because it is awesome.”
“Black people — specifically, young black people — do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service,” wrote Farhad Manjoo for Slate in 2010. “They form tighter clusters on the network — they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies — posts directed at other users. It’s this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people — and in particular, black teenagers — the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.”
Some called the article “voyeuristic” and others said its lead image — a black Twitter bird with a fitted cap — was offensive. But it revealed a truth: Black people had found their voice on Twitter while others were fumbling to understand that voice.
In October 2009, the Pew Research Center released the first study of black people overindexing on Twitter. It found that 26% of African Americans online were using the platform, compared with 19% of whites online. The impact of Black Twitter was undeniable, especially combined with Vine, the social media site that allowed people to share eight-second clips. Many of these would go viral thanks to black users on Twitter.
While there was no access to the coding to allow customization, Vine was a space for black creatives to test the limits of their imaginations. The site launched household slogans such as the “LeBron James kid” or “Yeet” vine. Comedians such as King Bach parlayed online celebrity to movie and comedy deals.
Even as Twitter became a space for black creativity, it never experienced the white flight that plagued MySpace, and it’s not totally clear why. Maybe enough white celebrities stuck around on Twitter to make it feel safe. MySpace required more searching to find the newest trends, while Twitter had widespread virality that allowed everyone to feel a part of the conversation. Maybe the trends started by black users were more easily co-opted and followed by white users who then could feel a part of the trends instead of latecomers or outsiders. Whatever the case, Twitter’s blackness isn’t the albatross that MySpace’s was seen as.
Even with Twitter’s popularity and the research studies, it was hard to quantify the economic potential of black people on Twitter at first.
Then Scandal came out.
Shonda Rhimes’ 2012 show starred Kerry Washington in the first prime-time lead for a black woman in 37 years. The show was given a midseason premiere and mediocre reviews — marks of a show that typically wouldn’t make it to a second season. However, black users — black women in particular — found a character they could relate to online in the form of Washington’s no-nonsense fixer with incredible style.
“Without Twitter to boost its profile and then its ratings, Scandal probably would have been canceled,” observed the Los Angeles Times in 2013. By the second season, though, the show was outperforming American Idol on Twitter and raking in 9 million viewers.
Scandal allowed the entertainment industry to measure the impact of black social media support. The power of black users on Twitter led Nielsen, the company that measures TV viewership, to invent a rating to measure the social impact of TV shows. Scandal led the ratings in the system’s inaugural week. It became clear that companies needed to pay attention to the buying power and impact of black social media users. TV shows with black leads such as black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder would follow, and there’s a direct line from the popularity of Scandal to the creation of the blockbuster movie Black Panther.
But “Black Twitter” would show power beyond pop culture. Soon everyone would see how black mobilization on the internet could change the world.
TWITTER IN 2014 AND BEYOND
Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Although Brown’s body lay on the ground for four hours, there was no mainstream media coverage of the event. Instead, pictures of Brown’s body flooded Twitter timelines and black people demanded answers. Within hours, hundreds of folks were headed to Ferguson’s streets to find out what happened and why Brown’s life was taken.
“I remember seeing it all on Twitter and all these black people talking about what had happened,” said civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson. He was so moved that he drove from Minneapolis to Ferguson. Meeting there with other activists, Mckesson decided that the best use of his skills would be to chronicle what was happening on the streets, and he used Twitter to achieve that goal.
“Twitter is the friend who is always awake,” Mckesson said. “There are people who are gifted in leading action and lead the action, but I could streamline the flow of information, and used Twitter to do that. I tried to tweet in a way that was clear, concise. Reporters had to follow me to know what they were going to get next.”
Twitter became a conduit for black folks to talk about police violence and social justice movements across the country. #BlackLivesMatter reached the mainstream thanks to Twitter in 2014. A new black liberation movement was formed, in large part by people putting their feet to the ground on American streets, but also thanks to people tweeting. Twitter magnified the moments when black people were victims of police violence and inequality. The world witnessed something similar in 2011 when the Arab Spring uprising was enacted through Facebook posts, Twitter posts and YouTube videos. As Middle East Eye wrote in 2015, Black Lives Matter is America’s Arab Spring.
“We don’t have to wait for mainstream media to tell the story anymore,” Mckesson said. “The protest shifted the power dynamic.”
Twitter (and for a time, live video apps such as Periscope) became a black liberation tool, whether that was the site’s intention or not.
As black folks tried to get free, however, anti-blackness became a part of the social media experience. Mckesson and other activists who had become public figures post-Ferguson were subjected to death threats, harassment and hacking attempts. Bot accounts started to appear, often with stolen avatars, that were designed to intimidate, harass and spread false information. Russia sought to amplify racial anger by buying Facebook ads about Ferguson in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
It seems like any person of color who pushes against societal norms and racism winds up in the crosshairs of traumatizing attacks from a digital mob. Actress Anna Diop endured racists harassing her over being cast as Starfire — an orange alien — in the Titans TV series. Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran deleted her Instagram account after attacks from racists upset over her role in Star Wars. Leslie Jones did the same on Twitter after the abuse directed at her for being in the Ghostbusters reboot in 2016.
Twitter has tried to address online abuse but has failed to do so in a way that eliminates much of the hate speech on the site. It eventually deleted the account of Alex Jones, the commentator who argued that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. But far too many slip by. I’ve reported hate speech to Twitter, including the use of racial slurs, only to have the company respond that there was insufficient evidence for it to take action.
The latest social media phenomenon is TikTok, a video-sharing app that has emerged as the new Vine. Just as with MySpace, Twitter and Instagram, the site is where black trends become international trends. Take, for instance, the “Renegade” dance. The craze was started by Jalaiah Harmon, a teenage girl from Atlanta, who posted the original version on Instagram. The dance was then widely adopted by TikTok users and landed her on the court at the NBA All-Star Game showing the world the moves. Meanwhile, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” beat out Justin Bieber for the top spot on Billboard charts, powered by teens playing the song on TikTok.
It’s only natural that COVID-19-imposed social distancing would cause people to gravitate toward social media, and TikTok is at the heart of this new world. Dance crazes are coming at the frequency of presidential news conferences. The “Don’t Rush” challenge, featuring people changing from their loungewear to fancy getups, was adopted by everyone from nurses to WNBA stars. Drake developed his own dance catering to TikTok fans, as the “Toosie Slide” earned him another No. 1 hit.
The social media platform has become a means of family bonding, as videos are made with mothers, grandmothers and babies, embracing the shared creativity that isolation can bring. LeBron James, Ciara and Shaquille O’Neal, among others, have joined in on crazes with their entire families dancing along.
Overall, black social media users have used this trying time to create art and share just how creative we can be. Instagram is a club every weekend, with people such as DJ D-Nice spinning sets that attract hundreds of thousands of viewers on Instagram Live. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland launched a “Versuz” series in which hit-makers pit their biggest songs against one another every weekend. Moments like these turned social media into a means of temporary relief while the world seems to be at its saddest. This is a testament to the power of black brilliance as it intersects with the technology that can bring us together.
Still, the question remains: With social media as toxic and divisive as ever, why do black people still use it? From personal experience, I can say I still use Twitter because it’s a massive resource for spreading my work. There are still communities of wrestling and basketball fans I like to talk with, as long as I ignore my mentions. But if I ever get to the point where I don’t need Twitter, I’m gone and not looking back.
For Mckesson, Twitter still represents a space to speak the truth to the masses. “The people who dismiss social media don’t see the full extent of the way it impacts these movements. Twitter helped us organize in ways we couldn’t have otherwise.”
Going back to private spaces where every word isn’t subject to harassment might be the future of black social media. Black millennials are flocking to GroupMe, a mobile app owned by Microsoft, where groups of friends can communicate with one another privately. I’m in several: black travel groups, a group of about 10 wrestling fans, a group for black writers. A lot of the toxicity of social media is absent in these spaces, and I feel like I can be my unfiltered self in ways I used to be on message boards and comment sections without worrying that bots will pull up my statements months later.
So where does that leave social media for the future? Something wholly new may come along that will make these concerns obsolete.
“The kids communicate through Fortnite now,” Coleman said. “Which is good, because we’ve reached peak social media. Black people are just tired.”
That fatigue has manifested itself in a constant balancing act: using social media for its benefits while also finding ways to protect ourselves from trauma.
Will there ever be a social media platform that is safe for black people? Social media is a digital reflection of the real world and any hope for a digital utopia is as strong as our hope for a real one. For a space where racism doesn’t weigh us down like an albatross around our necks.
Illustrations by Aurélia Durand