Here’s Everything That Happened At The #BlackTwitterSummit
It’s a busy morning in New York City–a statement I acknowledge is redundant–and I find myself shuffling along with the early morning Midtown crowd at a cadence that feels familiar to someone native to the city. Dirty chai latte in hand, I head toward 40th street and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY for the #BlackTwitterSummit. The event, created after a series of DMs and exchanges online, brought together a focus group of sorts, to contend with the seemingly impending destruction of the phenomena we call Black Twitter.
These days, it seems that there’s always something happening at Twitter. Elon Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of the social media company late last year was itself a saga full of legal battles and uncertainty. Within a week of his arrival, several top executives were fired, and in the following months, thousands of employees were laid off — a trend that has continued on a rolling basis since.
Most recently, it was reported that the billionaire demanded a change in Twitter’s algorithm to boost his impressions on the app. In February, the company announced that two-factor authentication via text message would only be available for Twitter Blue subscribers, making non-paying users vulnerable to hacking. These changes, and others, have kept the platform in the news, and shifted the culture users have become accustomed to since Twitter launched in 2006. According to the Anti-Defamation League, far-right extremists have taken advantage of the ongoing changes, emboldened by the decrease in content moderation. The recent transformation of Twitter has instigated a sense of panic for many who question not only the future of the platform, but the welfare of its subcommunities — Black Twitter being one of them.
What’s next for Black Twitter in the reign of Elon Musk?
This very question intrigued Professor Jeff Jarvis of the Newmark J-School, who decided to gather a group of people to answer it. Jarvis tapped four of the leading scholars on Black Twitter and the internet: Dr. Meredith Clark, Dr. André Brock, Dr. Johnathan Flowers, and Dr. Charlton McIlwain. Their mission was simple; provide a list of people that could meet and talk about the current state of Black Twitter. The attendees would all bring different perspectives and share them in a one day summit where they could maybe find a solution to a shared problem.
What they came up with was an impressive guest list of individuals, all experts in their respective fields. It included the technologists who code, the users who tweet, the scholars who study them, the journalists who report on them, the funders who keep the lights on, and the activists who keep everyone in line. We gathered to spend the day defining Black Twitter, identifying current threats, and dreaming of what comes next.
The room filled quickly as participants filed in, hugging the people they knew and introducing themselves to the people they didn’t. It seemed to be a mini reunion with many online relationships and Twitter mutuals meeting for the very first time. Conversations ranged from life updates, to logistics around arrival, to how unfair it felt to not sleep in on the morning after Valentine’s Day.
The first two sessions focused on our initial task, defining Black Twitter. For this, we turned to our four conveners and some participants who one could consider “Black Twitter famous.”
The scholars highlighted early research on Black Twitter and outlined how it became embedded in American popular culture. The first academic articles on Black Twitter were published in the early 2010s, trying to figure out what exactly Black people were up to on the social media site. Black Twitter as a community/gathering/phenomenon allowed users to make themselves and their racial identity visible in an internet culture praised for rejecting racial difference. Black people gathering online has a prehistory found not only on websites popularized before Twitter, but before the very inception of the Internet.
Given the extensive history of racism in the United States, African Americans have had to establish and prioritize community on their own terms. Black cultural innovation has driven technological developments, and the internet is no different. The tenets of these non-digital spaces found particular valence on Twitter, which allowed Black users to connect over time and space on their smartphones in 140 characters or less. Since then, Black Twitter has become recognized as a very specific space on the internet for laughs, connection, and most notably, social justice. One would be remiss to talk about Black Twitter without the movement for Black Lives, started from #BlackLivesMatter, which launched protests against police brutality and forever changed civil rights movements in the digital age. Resistance, however, is not the only legacy of Black Twitter. There is also room for joy.
In the thick of this lofty introduction, our second session served a reality check. While we can talk about Black Twitter as a thing that can be studied and invoked in conversation, we should remember that the community/gathering/phenomenon is made up of real users who aren’t tweeting to be part of Black Twitter, but simply using the internet while Black. Many of the best stewards of what we call Black Twitter were not in the room with us, lacking the institutional backing, follower count, or network to be included — not that an event such as this could actually hold everyone. These early users migrated from LiveJournal, Tumblr, MySpace, Yahoo, Facebook and others. They made Black Twitter what it is, and thus they shouldn’t be forgotten.
Black Twitter users made the hashtag and quote tweet function relevant. They tweeted when no one was watching and during #BlackLivesMatter when the entire world was. They joked about #NiggerNavy, challenged mainstream media with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, and called out institutions with #OscarsSoWhite.
But all that glitters isn’t gold, and all digital skinfolk ain’t kinfolk. The digital intimacy that enables joy and community for some, supports the harm of others. Personal stories of harassment, doxing, and shadowbanning were shared, particularly from Black women, sex workers and members of the LGBTQ+ community in the room. Their experiences highlight the ugly side of Black Twitter and the perils of being popular online. The features that make Twitter a powerful tool and megaphone for justice and community, can be weaponized against those often on the margins of Black identity along the lines of gender, sexuality, class, ability, religion and more, for the sake of respectability politics. This kind of violence can’t be escaped for those of us who also face it in our everyday offline lives. These intraracial tensions and hypocrisy exist because Blackness is not monolithic. It’s equal parts complicated and beautiful.
Regardless of the contradictions, we keep coming back to Twitter and clearly have an instinct to protect it. The next question we asked was what exactly is threatening it at this current moment?
The ongoing chaos at Twitter HQ, and the way it may or may not impact Black Twitter, is nothing new. Twitter wasn’t founded with Black Twitter in mind. And even as the company was shaped by what Black Twitter was doing, they paid us little to no attention. In fact, Black people, queer people, and sex workers have long used social media and the internet for their own means. They have also been exploited by the white male technologists of Silicon Valley who appropriated their digital practices to build their billion dollar social media empires.
When mis/disinformation became a source of panic after the 2016 presidential election, there wasn’t a big emphasis on how Black Twitter was exploited through the impersonation of Black users by bots. The black community has continued to be a target of misinformation online, whether it was about elections or the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter of which became a (now defunct) Twitter policy. Similarly, while Twitter has historically been friendly to adult-content, potential new features that would help monetize it have done nothing to quell fears that sex workers will continue to be banned or suspended. Adult-content has been growing on the platform, allowing Twitter to compete with apps like OnlyFans, but actual sex workers remain an afterthought for executives.
This brought us to question whether or not we can expect social media companies to have our best interest in mind. Those that take part in misinformation campaigns sign up for the platform like the rest of us. They may even make Twitter more money. White supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, and other forms of violence will always be profitable depending on who’s buying. Being Black online leaves us vulnerable to exploitation, and the ascension of Elon Musk can distract us from the existing dangers that come with everyone having an equal voice in the Twitterverse or elsewhere in the social media matrix.
Before we could ask what comes next, we needed to discuss what made Twitter so special in the first place. Given that we had invested so much into this platform, what’s at stake if we lost Black Twitter?
As a critical platform studies scholar, I know that everyday users don’t often think about or know how platforms structure how they act online. I consider myself a Zillenial, born between two generations with different propensities for internet use. Those raised on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok may be unaware of the minutiae since social media is second nature, but there are those who watched the current media landscape materialize. Either way, the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media platforms like Twitter are shaped by their features — what those in my field call affordances.
Affordances can be defined as properties that enable or prohibit action and thus shape behavior. Under the original definition by James J. Gibson, we can understand affordances as relevant to the natural environment. For example, a tree affords shade and a body of water prohibits movement. In either case, the tree and the body of water shape potential actions. On social media, these affordances can be cultural or technical, perceived or actual, and appropriated or rejected by users. They include large characteristics like the algorithm and interface or more specific things such as color, button size or shape, and even font. These choices are made by app designers who have particular intentions for users, platform governance, competition with other companies, and their commercial interests. The recent changes at Twitter highlight how two-step authentication, content moderation, character count, and account verification matter. In thinking about the future of Black Twitter, we’re really talking about what we get from Twitter and if those affordances can easily be replicated elsewhere.
The best part of Twitter is its ability to democratize communication. Hashtags, mentions, replies, threads, and other features coalesce to make it a platform that keeps people tweeting. Twitter is the place where announcements are made and news breaks. It’s where politicians connect to their constituents who have a chance to talk back. It’s where anyone can tweet into the void and find a community of people with similar thoughts and interests. These features form the basis of Black Twitter, which one participant described as living in an all-Black dorm at a PWI (predominantly white institution). Can this formula be replicated anywhere else? What do alternative platforms have to offer?
Just because Black Twitter is the most well known community/gathering/phenomenon of Black users online doesn’t mean that there aren’t others. Black Instagram, Black Facebook or Black YouTube may not roll off the tongue the same, but we know that there are Black people there. Remember that any online community is shaped by the platform on which they gather. On Tik Tok, for example, the hashtag #BlackTikTok allows users to post and engage with a subcommunity that impacts the personalized nature of their “For You” feed. Even Pinterest allows users to filter search results by skin color and hair type, meaning finding culturally relevant results is baked into the platform’s DNA (albeit a recent feature).
During the social unrest of 2020, #BlackLivesMatter found some traction on Instagram, but we all know that those black squares were a bad idea. Because of the infrastructure of the platform, clogging hashtags with blank images prevented relevant information from being seen. Image-centric and text-centric platforms privilege different kinds of content and with Black Twitter being so intertwined with language, particularly the use of signifying and wordplay, other large tech giants are not easy replacements. Users will continue to use those platforms as they always have, but things may not be the same.
The controversy around Twitter has also laid a path to not only big platforms but to alternatives that change the very nature of social media we’ve grown accustomed to. As massive swarms of users fled Twitter in protest of Musk, other platforms have stepped in to provide these digital nomads refuge. These platforms offer some of the same affordance and structure that enable community and connection, but diverge from the big social media apps in a major way — they are federated. Several of the technologists and app developers in the room represented the Fediverse–apps like Planetary Social, Hometown, and Mastodon, the latter of which peaked in popularity as Musk ascended to power at Twitter.
Federated social media is not just about changes to affordances or features but to the structure of social media itself. Whereas Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are centralized, federated apps are decentralized, operating on servers that allow users to connect on their own terms and without the commercial interests of bigger platforms that focus on ads for revenue. This local approach to social media may not play on a global scale, but emphasizes the community and connection that Black Twitter established for themselves. Rather than relying on one person (usually a rich white man) to decide our online fates, federated platforms allow users some say in the matter. Hometown, a modification of Mastodon, operates on an inside voice/outside voice model, allowing users to engage with a larger server of users or a local one bounded by an agreed upon set of community rules. This kind of participatory decision making could shield against unwanted harassment, limit accessibility to prevent exploitation, and make social media fun again, even if you’re only engaging with 50 people.
It’s uncertain if any of these alternatives can give us what we need in this moment of apparent crisis, or just a watered down version of what took a decade to build. This is what we hold onto at the chance that Black Twitter might disappear, and why some are reluctant to even consider what’s next.
Finally, we arrived at the question that brought us all together. Now that we know what Black Twitter is, what’s threatening it, what we risk to lose, and what else is available, we pondered on what the future could and should look like.
Everyone had something to say, so this last session went round robin style. My relaying of it will follow a similar format.
What’s next for Black Twitter includes (but is not limited to): Supporting nontraditional technologists. Not centering profit on social media. Being better people to others online and not seeing their humanity after you get your jokes off. Supporting Black developers who create other platforms. Thinking about the lived experiences of Black people who don’t care about Twitter. Trusting users to design their own digital futures and centering them in decision making. Offering them consent and agency in the digital worlds that they live in so they create the boundaries and means of existence. Implementing accessible design considerations. Correcting the double standards in community guidelines that punish sex workers. Funding actionable items and not just giving lip service. Thinking about the ethics in platforms themselves, such as the labor practices that allow us to access social media in the first place. Protecting the infrastructure of the internet which has also come under attack. Making Black Twitter a segregated space without outside surveillance. Establishing pre-work around user safety so that we can avoid moments of panic when things reach a fever pitch. Using the grassroot efforts of Black Twitter in real life for social justice work. Taking an ecosystem approach to social media so we don’t risk losing it all when one platform fails us. Moving beyond big tech all together. Reverting to analog forms of community. Or just staying where we are and making it work until it can’t anymore.
In the end, we didn’t agree on one singular solution, but perhaps that wasn’t the point of our meeting.
I realized that what we were talking about was much bigger than Black Twitter, bigger than Elon Musk or whoever succeeds him as Twitter’s keeper, and bigger than social media as a whole. It reminded me of Melissa Harris-Perry’s concept of the crooked room. Harris-Perry references a cognitive psychology study in which participant’s field dependency was tested. They were placed in a room where things are set off balance and angled in a way where they can’t tell what’s upright. They must attempt to balance themselves on a chair within this crooked room. The imbalance of the environment challenges their ability to straighten. In her book Sister Citizen, she bridges the study to the experience of Black women in America who try to find balance in a sociopolitical and historical environment that is off-balance, feeding them negative images about themselves no matter how they adjust.
Similarly, our discussion of Black Twitter animated topics like anti-Black racism, misogynoir, capitalism, exploitation, diversity, white supremacy, homophobia, and other forms of violence that can be traced to the birth of our nation — the original sins of the American project we have yet to wash away. We won’t find a solution to these larger ideological issues on Twitter, because it and platforms like it, were made in this very context. They can not and should not be separated. Finding harmony on Twitter does nothing for the disarray that surrounds us and that chaos always clouds our judgment of what happens next. The people at the #BlackTwitterSummit are not equipped to fix all of these larger problems, but perhaps starting with Black Twitter can bring some balance to some other areas or shed light on what else is lopsided.
By the end of our 8-hour day together, we probably had more questions than answers. What will come after this? No one can be sure quite yet. Will it be the creation of the next big platform? A lab dedicated to archiving Black Twitter? A push toward the federated alternatives? Another organized summit with a different set of people? The precarity of social media is something we’re always going to have to deal with. But convenings like this are crucial as we continue to grapple with the role social media platforms have in shaping us and what role we have (or should have) in shaping them. In that sense, this is not an ending, but a beginning.
What I do know is that what we call Black Twitter existed in some form before Twitter’s founders started the company 17 years ago, and it will live on in some other form long after the platform wanes in popularity as all platforms eventually do. Black people are going to find a way to get together, self-define and tell our stories our way, support each other, wound each other even when we shouldn’t, laugh whether it’s appropriate or not, and exist in collective joy in conditions that have never been in our control. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next.