By the end of the Obama era, Black Twitter seemed like a fully realized world, with its own codes and customs. As it reached new levels of visibility and influence, though, deep-rooted problems began to reassert themselves. Users were hardly surprised.
Sarah J. Jackson, coauthor of #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice: When we first got on Twitter, we weren’t worried about people pretending to be Black. We took people for their word. They were who they were.
Judnick Mayard, TV writer and producer: Now y’all over here tryna copy. Everything is a copy of Black Twitter. Every trend, every conversation. Humor. The idea of audacity. Y’all was never as audacious as Black Twitter.
Sylvia Obell, host of the podcast Okay, Now Listen: It starts with us, and then Black culture gets taken everywhere. We can always trace it back to a tweet or a joke or meme or whatever else, because we have that evidence.
Mayard: From the Kardashian body down to the idioms used in ads.
CaShawn Thompson, educator: I think, quite frankly, there is a healthy amount of gatekeeping that we ain’t doing. We let these white folks come at us any old kind of way. Nah. Check them. Stay out of our business.
Brandon Jenkins, TV and podcast host: Black Twitter made a real-time encyclopedia, like an IV plugged into our system. It also created a visibility on Black culture that people never had before. There’s benefits to it, but we never thought about what it would actually mean to be seen.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States—and the politics of division he represented—did not shock a great many Black Americans. Still, we reeled, and often turned to Twitter for respite.
André Brock, author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures: When Trump took over, white people really began to claw back all the politeness and care for Black folk that they, at one point, seemed to have.
Tracy Clayton, host of the podcast Strong Black Legends: That’s the time when we needed emotional support the most. We were pre-grieving all the things we knew that we stood to lose with his presidency, and we were grieving the loss of Obama’s presidency.
C. Thompson: The Trump years were a time for us to come together, hold on, and ride this terrible wave together.
Often, that meant gathering around moments of Trumpian absurdity—one in particular.
Brock: The Yahoo tweet “Trump wants a much nigger navy” is infamous. They took it down 20 minutes after, so you’ll never find it.
Johnetta Elzie, St. Louis activist: Everybody was like, wait, what does this say? Some news publication and their alleged typo [for “bigger navy”]. That’s a hell of a typo, but OK.
Denver Sean, editor of LoveBScott.com: I have never laughed so hard. I mean, it’s got to be one of the top three Black Twitter moments of all time.
God-is Rivera, global director of culture and community at Twitter: We had a field day. It was just so many jokes around basically what would be a Black Navy. It was a lot of Cash Money taking over for the 99, people on boats, and all of that.
Elzie: I appreciate Black people’s ability to find joy or make a joke. I know that sometimes we shouldn’t joke about certain shit, but some things are just, like, the joke is right there and I’m glad you said it.
Naima Cochrane, music and culture journalist: The unofficial code of Black Twitter is: Jokes are better than facts.
Even—perhaps especially—in the face of a raging, terrifying global pandemic.
Jenkins: It just felt like the automatic setting was supposed to be sad. And then, here goes Black people showing up and being dynamic and presenting conflicting emotions. People would tweet that they lost someone that morning and would be getting jokes off at the expense of the nation in the afternoon.
Cochrane: I remember it being, like, June, and somebody would say something about a panasonic or a panorama or a pan pizza, and folks are like, don’t you mean pandemic? And we’re like, no, a Pinocchio. It’s a permanent press. [Laughs.]
Obell: Are we gonna call the pandemic everything but that? A panasonic? A panini? Yes. Because what else are we supposed to do? Die? No.
Kozza Babumba, head of social at Genius: The pandemic was unbelievably difficult, and I can look at mad moments on Black Twitter like, this is the only way I’m getting through the day.
Kashmir Thompson, visual artist: We supported each other. Myself and a lot of my followers would do random lunch giveaways, where we would pick some of our followers to Cash App money to.
C. Thompson: I came down with Covid. I was isolated in my own home. When I was up to it, I would get on Twitter and talk about it. You know, my anxieties around it. People responded and prayed for me. People sent food deliveries. It made everything a lot more bearable.
Obell: Black Twitter did a lot of affirming that was necessary—mentally—at the time. Like, I’m not the only one arguing with my mom about not going to church; you all are dealing with that too?
Just as it was in the early days, shared moments of entertainment became prime-time viewing during the pandemic.
Obell: When TV and movies had to stop filming, we weren’t getting new stuff to watch the way we would have otherwise. And then something like Verzuz [the song battle webcast, produced by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz] comes out.
Browne: The moment when we can’t do all the stuff that we need to do and love to do, out of this was birthed a virtual music experience where millions of people are tuning in to hear very Black artists.
Rivera: The conversation was on Twitter. I had the time of my life the night Teddy Riley battled Babyface.
Obell: From the multiple attempts to them being peak Black uncles to the guy who was on the side jamming with Teddy the whole time, and how that became a meme—I don’t think I’ve ever laughed more.
Babumba: I’m not exaggerating, actual tears came from my fucking eyeballs. I cried multiple times that night because mofos were wylin. It was off the rails, and jokes were prime.
K. Thompson: We kept trying to invent ways to have fun—but that’s just Black people on the internet, period.
Brock: These were spaces where people could witness a collective experience of joy and relaxation, since many of us were shut out of concerts. My wife is still mad about our Janet Jackson tickets.
Babumba: Tiger King was a fine documentary, but what made it good—actually more than watchable, but enjoyable—was watching it with Black Twitter. The Michael Jordan documentary was amazing, but it was more amazing because Black Twitter had jokes for days. The work that Jasmyn did over at Netflix, when she was able to put together that Coachella watch party for Beyoncé—unbelievable.
Jasmyn Lawson, TV content executive at Netflix: For someone like me who lives alone, the isolation hit very quick. I was like, OK, how can I still feel connected to people? I’m a huge Beyoncé fan, and I remember live-tweeting when Homecoming first came on Netflix. I thought, can we do that as a group? I definitely did not expect it to grow and have so many legs or to get the attention of Beyoncé herself. The trending topic was number one across the globe.
But the joys would prove fleeting—it was to be a merciless year that wouldn’t let up. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Nationwide protests. A contentious election that threatened to rip the country apart.
Babumba: When the George Floyd video came out, Twitter was afire.
Rembert Browne, writer: The uprisings in the streets felt very connected to 2013, ’14, ’15 in terms of, I’m getting my real news from Twitter again. The reporting about the 2020 election. The reporting about the police. I knew that the realest version I was gonna get was gonna be on Twitter. My mom was going to find out about it on cable news. And then at some point, I would talk to her and tell her what’s actually going on.
Babumba: The protests started happening, and you started seeing people moving in the streets. And yes, we were moving in the streets during the pandemic.
Jackson: People were doing what they do, which is the resiliency of Blackness in America. They were figuring out how to build community. They were figuring out how to take action on Twitter. They were pointing out the hypocrisy of the nation that was letting Black people die at a disproportionate rate from this plague that was keeping us apart while trying to decide whether to reelect a white supremacist or not.
Sean: The news cycle was just crazy. We had Trump in office doing all of what Trump was doing.
Cochrane: Twitter wore my nerves out during election season.
Rivera: The way Atlanta came through, and the memes about the mail-in votes, you know what I mean? That was us congratulating us, because we always fought for the promise and the right of liberation and freedom.
Michael Arceneaux, author of I Don’t Want to Die Poor: By this stage, Twitter was more exhausting than enjoyable for me. So while Twitter is where I first saw the news of Biden’s election, I was more relieved by the cheers outside in Harlem—a break from the sirens signaling death and shit—than on the timeline.
Cochrane: The insurrection at the Capitol was horrifying. But I was going back and forth between being horrified and gut-busting laughter at how we were on Black Twitter like, OK, this ain’t got nothing to do with us. Like the eating popcorn GIF. We were marveling at the ridiculousness of it all, even as scary as it was.
Jenkins: If we saw Black people out there, we’d know that we were about to watch one of the biggest massacres to ever take place on American soil. But there was very few Black people in sight, so we knew it was about to be jokes.
As the election of Joe Biden portended a return to a kind of normalcy, Black Twitter began to look inward, prompting a period of soul searching.
Sean: I kind of pulled away from Black Twitter in 2020. We had so much misinformation and back and forth about Covid and what we’re supposed to do and who thinks what. Combine that with the idea that Twitter is not as fun as it used to be, because everything is so overpoliced.
Cochrane: I think accountability is important, but now there is a little bit of glee when, quote-unquote, exposing people. And in the hastiness to do that, misinformation runs rampant. That is the one thing about Black Twitter that I think is hard: Once something gets going, it’s very hard to reel it back in.
Browne: In reality, like everything, there are sections of Black Twitter. There are even generations of Black Twitter.
Sean: Gen Z and Twitter—I don’t know what it is, but it’s not for them. They can’t handle it. I mean, everybody is just super sensitive. And I get it, we’re moving to a place where certain things are allowed and certain things aren’t. Because a lot of us came up with Twitter, we’ve gotten so comfortable that, before, it felt really intimate, like you could tell a joke.
Elzie: I miss the hood days on Twitter, the good days. It’s not that fun to me anymore.
Wesley Lowery, 60 Minutes+ correspondent: The heartbeat of Black Twitter was just, insert random Black user who got something funny off that day or who did a thread or who talked about $200 dates. It was this democratic process. It was a Black open mic night. Once Black Twitter started being talked about as this tangible thing you could study or hold or quantify, some of that magic melted away.
Browne: Originally, it felt like folks were at least getting into it for the right reasons. Since Black Lives Matter and lots of things have become profitable, I think we are now in a second wave where I do think some folks get into this game for the wrong reason.
Lawson: Twitter is just a mirror reflection of our real world. I don’t think that it’s always a healthy space and I don’t think it’s always a toxic space. There’s definitely always an in-between.
But it’s important to remember that certain users—particularly women and queer folks—have never felt comfortable on the platform.
C. Thompson: I get heated. I hate to see the way Black women are treated. I get abused on here by Black men all the time.
Meredith Clark, author of a forthcoming book on Black Twitter: Black Twitter is not a very safe and welcoming space when it comes to discussions of gender or when it comes to discussions of nonnormative identity or being queer.
Raquel Willis, trans rights activist: I never felt comfortable in the early days. Transphobia and trans misogyny was so commonplace that even some of the people we consider to be the wokest now, or the most down, were shitty to trans people online.
C. Thompson: Some people are brazenly ignorant and antagonistic to anybody that’s different from them.
Brock: Hotep, which is an Egyptian word, has come to represent a certain type of toxic masculinity. These men believe that women should know their place. A lot of it is Black incel culture. Tariq Nasheed got big in that period.
Willis: Tariq Nasheed has terrorized Black women and Black queer and trans folks for years. It is almost impossible for a white institution, which all these social media companies are, to hold the intra-communal harm accountable. It’s not possible for Twitter, as a corporation, to hold Black figures accountable in the same way they can hold alt-right white figures accountable—and they still don’t do a good job of that.
Brock: All these constituencies have just as active a presence on Twitter as young queer folks, as the educated Black bourgeoisie, the Blavity Blacks. So there’s this constant undercurrent of commentary on things they think Black people should and should not do.
Mayard: Now, we’re learning lessons—and being like, “Oh, no. You don’t get to run and hide in the community if you are being an abuser or an oppressor.” We hold each other accountable.
Willis: And Twitter is a great space for political education. People understanding the sheer amount of violence that Black trans people face—and, of course, enjoying the beauty of our experiences—that came, in large part, from Black Twitter. I can only imagine how many people first learned about Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera through a tweet.
Despite the challenges of being on the platform, positive change seemed possible. And in many cases, new opportunities arose.
April Reign, diversity and inclusion advocate: We know that Black Twitter is powerful because it found people who have been lost. It has helped people who have mental health issues, financial issues. We have promoted Black businesses.
Ashley Weatherspoon, founder of DearYoungQueen.com: To see that people were able to build things from it, you know what I mean? Like, people were able to build careers. People are able to help people. People are able to take a meme and then it turns into a job for them. Watching these talented writers and comedians and all of the people on Twitter turn it into something real and valuable—into an income—is fucking so dope and beautiful to me.
Willis: How many shows in the last 10 years have made their BLM episode? That is how deep in the culture the discourse in Black Twitter has been. I don’t know if we would have Insecure in the way that we have it without Black Twitter. I don’t know that we would have a Moonlight or a Get Out—or even what Black Panther was—without a presence on Black Twitter yearning for those things.
Sean: I have friends who are in writing rooms and work for production companies, and from what I hear, most of their ideas come from Black Twitter. They’re taking Black Twitter jokes and incorporating them into scripts.
Browne: Twitter kind of became this creative laboratory where folks really got to flex a lot of different muscles. I love the fact that I’m looking at the cover of Deadline and it’s Desus, Mero, and Ziwe. Desus and Mero are two people who do not get to where they are without Twitter.
Weatherspoon: What gives me so much happiness and satisfaction is seeing us win from it. We’re doing it. Like damn, we really turned this into something.
More than a decade since Black people got on the platform, altering its very DNA and the power it gave to those who used it, the essence of Black Twitter lives on in these accomplishments—and in a legacy that’s still being written today.
Jamilah Lemieux, Slate columnist: It’s hard for me to define a single legacy.
Jenkins: We’re still so close to the epicenter that it’s really hard to measure. But if we’re dropping a pin in different moments in the world of Black culture, Black Twitter is really fucking high up there. I’m not gonna get crazy and say it’s Juneteenth, but it’s really big.
Jackson: Can you imagine the last 10 years of American pop culture without Black Twitter?
Jenkins: What the fuck would advertising do? Where would restaurants look for slang?
Rivera: Black Twitter shook the table so strongly that this country will never be the same. It was not always comfortable, but I think what they did was literally change the trajectory of society by pushing back, by finding new ways to find joy and creativity and showing that we matter.
Lemieux: Black Twitter has made it a lot harder to ignore certain voices.
Rivera: You can be a hairdresser or a widow somewhere in Alabama. But you can get these tweets off on Black Twitter.
Reign: Not every Black person is a member of Black Twitter. Hello Candace Owens. And not every person who is a member of Black Twitter is Black. You have to be open enough to be able to amplify and to promote the culture while also acknowledging that your place may not be within the culture.
Jenkins: Black Twitter is probably maybe the best piece of media to capture Blackness in its sort of unfiltered and dynamic way ever. I think we’re going to look back at it and realize it’s the most honest depiction—not to say it’s perfect by any means—of contemporary Black culture that there is.
Brock: It is a living archive, because we are still contributing to it every day.
Babumba: It’s crazy because we do this without a monthly Illuminati meeting. It’s not like we meet, like, “OK guys, this month we’re gonna do this, then wild out.” A lot of it is so organic, and it comes up because that is what we are interested in.
Clark: Just like with everything else, we really don’t give a fuck, because we’re not doing what we do for other people.
K. Thompson: I hate to be like, we run this whole shit, but really we do. [Laughs.]
Jenkins: People say to be Black is to be bilingual, but it’s something beyond language. It’s multi- … I don’t have the word. It’s just Black.
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