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Friday, June 21, 2024

There Is No Replacement for Black Twitter

Funeral arrangements for Black Twitter began in earnest on November 10 when Mikki Boom, a graphic designer who has been a member of the social media platform since 2009, posted a “Celebration of life” flyer to her Twitter page. The response was nuclear. What did people plan to wear to the service? Their most dripped-out church attire, of course. What songs would be played? Imaginary gospel classics—“Take My Handle, Precious Lord” and “Goin’ Over Tumblr”—were encouraged. And what of the repast? Whatever was to be served, it was agreed that “no brown bags or foil” should be used for to-go plates—the food was meant for the family.

The discussion, like most discussions on Black Twitter, contained the insular charm of a group chat. It was loose and humorous but so intentionally specific that an outsider might have trouble keeping pace. It was also emblematic of what has made Black Twitter an unparalleled force throughout its 13 years: the ability to seamlessly remix Black customs, ways of speech, and issues onto our shared digital terrain in a manner that feels somehow familiar but new.

Black Twitter has endured as the premiere cultural marketplace of our time because it accomplished what no other digital body could. It “provided coherence—through culture, discourse, collective identity, and joy—to a digital platform that nobody really understood” until it was too late, says André Brock, a professor of Black digital studies at Georgia Tech.

From the jump, the influence was inherent in its consumer base: Black folks used Twitter to circumvent mainstream channels and get their voices heard, creating hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and powering generation-defining protest movements around racial justice, gender, and sexual equality. Black Twitter became the epicenter of discussion on the social internet, the prism through which all conversation flowed. Under the ownership of Elon Musk, however, all of that could fade away in an instant.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how that dissolution might play out, but the accumulating gaffes suggest that the platform won’t survive much longer under Musk’s iron fist, a tenure already stained by reckless self-indulgence. Since acquiring Twitter for $44 billion, he has made a series of damaging missteps that have called the fate of the platform into question, including large-scale layoffs, an impulsive management style, and abrupt feature changes followed by even more abrupt reversals.

Where members of Black Twitter stand in all of this remains unclear, although the general consensus among my sources and across my timeline seems to be one of: We aren’t leaving until we’re kicked off. What is clear is that significant alterations are coming. It raises an urgent question: Just who will be included in this next era of Twitter?

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Not everyone is holding out hope. Musk paints himself a free-speech evangelist, but inclusion has never been a strong point in matters of business. One former Twitter employee I spoke with described this next phase in grim terms: It’s “the end of Black Twitter and Black people at Twitter.”

Of course, that kind of loss would be immeasurable. “Black Twitter has reflected a fuller scope of Blackness, and a rejection of respectability,” says Sarah J. Jackson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of #HashtagActivism. “It has modeled what a healthy public sphere might look like, from the call-ins and callouts to the community debates about identity, from the parts that make you uncomfortable to the parts that inspire you.”

Denver Sean is an editor at the gossip news site Love B. Scott. He joined Twitter in 2009 just as Black Twitter was crystallizing and felt like it was the first platform to give Black people a collective voice. “There wasn’t anyone to gatekeep or silence Black people's opinions,” he says. “It’s just a chronological feed of Black thought. Which is great—most of the time.”

So, if the time comes and Black Twitter has to close shop, can it be replicated on another social media platform?

“Probably not,” says Brock. “Mastodon is siloed. Discord is voice-centric. TikTok is too busy. Nothing else closely replicates Twitter’s feature set.” He says Instagram is the most obvious contender because it “has seen a slow Black Twitter exodus over the last five years. It’s not satisfactory, but it’s got a core Black Instagram experience that will suffice for now.”

I should note that the possible shuttering of Twitter’s is part of the lifecycle of the social internet. Digital reservoirs die, and new ones are built in their wake. This has been true for as long as Black users have been online, from the rise and burnout of Melanet in the late 1990s to BlackPlanet and MySpace. Social migration is a constant.

One alternative that has come up in conversation among members of Black Twitter, albeit fleetingly, is Somewhere Good, the audio platform that rivals Clubhouse but is geared exclusively toward inclusive communities. Unlike Twitter, however, it relies solely on voice notes, billing itself as “an app that feels less like a feed and more like a kickback.”

Whatever the destination, Black Twitter will be increasingly difficult to recreate. “The infrastructures of places like Mastodon and TikTok, which are wildly different from one another, of course, are too segmented to create the feeling of a truly public square,” Jackson says. “They require a learning curve many will resist, are algorithmically designed toward narrowing content, and are ephemeral. I expect many folks will rely more heavily on Instagram, but it will never be the same.”

What, then, becomes of the social internet without its public square? Sean says that change has already happened, citing how the platform has lost the allure of its earlier days, a period when users weren’t trying to shamelessly engineer virality. “Black Twitter today isn’t even the Black Twitter of a few years ago,” he says. “Whatever happens on whatever new platform will be a reflection of just that—but not Black Twitter.”

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