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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Why the History of Black Twitter Needed to Be Told

If you've been on Twitter, then you've been on Black Twitter. No other subsection of social media has produced ideas and movements as influential or as dynamic as those that have come from Black voices on Twitter. In the early days, it existed as a space where Black people could connect, bat around some jokes, and share their experiences. Over time, Twitter’s Black community grew to become a driving force of real-world social change. It catalyzed culture and led to important movements like #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, and, of course, Black Lives Matter.

This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior writer Jason Parham joins us to talk about his three-part oral history called “A People’s History of Black Twitter,” what it means to be Black online, and how Black Twitter has changed society.

Show Notes

Read Jason’s oral history of Black Twitter (Part I, Part II, Part III). Also read his September 2020 cover story about TikTok and the evolution of digital blackface.


Jason recommends the show Jett on Cinemax. Lauren recommends the July 28 episode of The Daily podcast, The Saga of Congress’s Jan. 6 Investigation. Mike recommends The Summer of Soul on Hulu.

Jason Parham can be found on Twitter @nonlinearnotes. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: Lauren, how much time do you spend on Twitter every day?

LG: I just go on to promote our work at WIRED.com. I don't know, I'm on a lot, probably more than I should be and I've tried taking breaks and I generally do find that I feel better when I'm off of Twitter but then I also feel like I'm not as plugged into the news. How about you?

MC: I had to set a timer so that I was not spending any more than 10 minutes a day on Twitter because otherwise I would spend my entire life on Twitter.

LG: What kind of communities are you into on Twitter?

MC: We're going to talk about one of those communities today.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

MC: Hi everyone, welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore a senior editor at WIRED.

LG: And I'm Lauren Goode, I'm a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: And today we are joined by WIRED senior writer, Jason Parham. Hi Jason.

Jason Parham: Hi guys. Thanks for having me.

MC: Of course, welcome to the show.

JP: Excited to be here.

MC: If you spend any time on Twitter you have seen the memes, the jokes, the movements and ideas from Black Twitter. In fact, there's no sub-section of Twitter that has been as influential or as impactful on society as Black Twitter. Conversations on Black Twitter have catalyzed culture and led to important shifts like Oscars So White, the Me Too movement and of course Black Lives Matter. Jason Parham, our guest today has just written a three-part oral history of Black Twitter for WIRED, it charts the evolution of Black Twitter from a kind of casual gathering space to a force for genuine social change.

We published it online in weekly installments, part three just went live this week and people can read the whole oral history right now on WIRED.com, it is also the cover story of the September issue of WIRED magazine. In your story you call Black Twitter the incubator of nearly every meme and social justice cause worth knowing about, it is both news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury, a comedy showcase, therapy session and a family cookout all in one, I love that. I want to start just with a broad question, why did you want to construct this timeline of Black Twitter from when it first started to the present day?

JP: Right. I think there were a few things, it was sort of a meeting of circumstances, but one is sort of the primary sort of drive for me was that it was really important that we have more records of Black history and Black genius and Black creativity that are being created on the internet, we need more official documents and records of them, right? So something I learned in my reporting for my cover story last year about digital Black face in TikTok and how White creators were exploiting Black culture and how Black culture was being erased or taken advantage of, people were sort of sucking the culture and the life from Black culture.

And one thing I noticed was that we weren't taking the ownership in the way that we should take ownership of these things. And so I wanted to with Black Twitter with enough distance and depth now from it's beginning to sort of where it is now, I thought we could sort of take a sort of full scope look at it and sort of dive into it and sort of have this document. I think halfway through, I also kind of realized that an official oral history of Black Twitter just didn't exist in the world and so that was the other part of it. I was just like, well, if it doesn't exist then it just needs to exist and it needs to exist in WIRED so let's just do it.

LG: And when we go through these processes of pitching stories to our editors at WIRED or in my case pitching stories to Mike here, we explore different formats and ways of approaching big stories like these. How did you ultimately decide to go with an oral history? Talk about that process.

JP: Right. So we kind of wanted to time it to the founding of Twitter which was July 15th and so it was a good news pick for us. Black Twitter is this multi versus this giant ecosystem of people and identities and just all sorts of culture, it's not this monolithic sort of landscape. And I think it would have been too herculean a task for me to write a sort of feature on it, right? I don't think that could have given its full scope because Black Twitter is made up of so many voices. It's sort of this rich plurality of people and ideas and things that I think an oral history lent itself to this sort of framework of what Black Twitter was. I think it was really the best way to capture the essence of Black Twitter.

MC: Now pre-Twitter, so pre 2006, 2007, there were very few online spaces for Black voices. There were some platforms, but what was the community like online before that?

JP: I mean it was tough, right? So like the mid '90s you had stuff like BlackPlanet online, you had Melanin, you had these sort of upstart Black communities online. I mean, people were investing but they're kind of flared out after a few years. And then along comes something like Twitter which I think is extremely important because it kind of gets at what Black folks do really well which one of the people I spoke with for the oral history professor, Andre Brock, where Black folks do something really well which is signifying, right? So we love conversation, we love these spaces where we can convene and congregate and so Twitter was the sort of best application of that I think in a way that Facebook couldn't do, in the way that MySpace didn't do and even in the way that we loved BlackPlanet, but even BlackPlanet couldn't sort of replicate that sort of conversation real time feel.

LG: So how did the name or phrase Black Twitter even come to be? And this is kind of a two part question too because I'm wondering if that sort of helped create or facilitate a deeper sense of community among the Black community or whether that also created a sense of otherism or even allow brands or social media to co-opt the phrase for their own purposes and even use it wrong. Basically what was the origin story of the creation of that phrase and how has it been used effectively but also misused?

JP: I mean the origin of it comes it was sort of, I think it was Slate or The All published a story in 2009, it was late night Black people talking on Twitter or something like that and it was sort of this, what are the black folks over here doing? Right? And there were a lot of people early on, Black folks on the platform that kind of really rejected the idea that it's not called Black Twitter, I follow Black folks, I'm on Twitter, it's just called Twitter for me, right? So this is something that kept coming up in conversations with people I spoke with, right?

It's like, they didn't call it Black Twitter, it was everybody that was outside of Black Twitter calling it Black Twitter and saying what's going on over there. But I think over time eventually people embraced the name, especially around 2013, 2014, when there's a shift, a small shift in the platform and what it's being used for. But I mean, as with all things when Black folks are online and the idea of Blackness and Black culture, it eventually sort of gets just co-opted and becomes this other thing but I think Black folks eventually over time just embraced it and just kind of ran with it.

MC: Yeah. And we'll talk about that shift in a minute because that's really interesting. One of the people you talk to in your story talks about the early days of Black Twitter and just being a hang, right? It was a porch space. It was a place that you just went to talk about jokes and maybe talk about celebrity news or something but they weren't the center of the conversation. And then at some point it switched from a porch to a stage, you didn't just go there to hang out with your friends, you went there to be heard, you went there to say something and you knew that it would be amplified.

JP: Yeah. I think eventually a lot of people early on were saying it reminded them of college, it reminded them of a quad space, right? So in the early days of Twitter, or at least of Black Twitter was 2008, 2009, 2010, maybe up to 2012, you have this very specific millennial set of people who were maybe ending high school or in their early days of college and they had all this time on their hands outside of going to class and shooting the shit on the yard or whatever and they were coming to Twitter because they just wanted to talk and talk about their day and just tell people what's going on in their lives. I think what's really fascinating, a lot more conversation back then, a lot of people kind of described as the Wild Wild West, now we have cancel culture, when somebody says something and somebody gets kicked off the platform for certain views or whatever but back in the day it was kind of like, I can say whatever because I'm just here having fun with my friends and they understand my point of views.

I think it's really interesting that you say that it goes from a port space to a platform to a stage because I think that's partly just the sort of rhythms of where the internet was going, right? In terms of now we have influencers and now we have YouTube but then we have people using the space to perform and signify in a way that they hadn't before which I think is really interesting and it's kind of feeding into what's happening on the larger social internet, right? And so I think up until 2014 it was kind of a very communal insular space and then once Ferguson happens and once Trayvon Martin happens, this light switch goes off and it kind of veers course a little bit.

MC: So the events of 2014 are something that we're going to get deeper into on the second half of the show so let's take a break right now and then we'll come back and we'll talk about that.


MC: Welcome back. We've talked already about some of the online cultural shifts that have come out of Black Twitter but even more important is how that energy ended up manifesting in the real world. Jason, when did people start to get the sense that what was happening on Twitter could lead to action offline?

JP: Yeah. So I think it started really happening with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, right? One of the people I spoke with for the oral history, God-is Rivera, who was big on Black Twitter back in the day and who now actually works at Twitter, she sort of hustled it into an actual real job at Twitter which is cool. She was a mother, she was telling me this really fascinating story, she was a new mother at the time, she was living in New York, she had to pick up her daughter at daycare by 6:30 so she's rushing down the highway to get there. But every time she was one to pick up her daughter she would listen to the radio and she would always listen to The Michael Baisden Show and this was February, 2012. And she happened to be listening one day and a mother called in, Sybrina Fulton talking about her son, she was trying to get attention by her son who had just been killed by this guy in Florida and there was no police attention, there was on national news attention around it.

And a Black kid getting killed is not news, it happens literally all the time in America, this is just sort of the America we live in and the reality we live with but it was something about this moment that catalyzed Twitter in a way that hadn't happened before, right? And so God-is she hears the boy's name and she can't find any news about it so she looks it up, she Googles it and all the news is on Black Twitter. Everybody is talking about this kid, Trayvon Martin, who's been shot down in Sanford, Florida and Black Twitter was sort of the first place to amplify what was happening with Trayvon Martin and all the attention around his killing. And I think it's really transformational in a way because it's the first instance of sort of now what we consider hashtag activism, right? So the killing of Trayvon Martin is when we first see the #BlackLivesMatter appear on Facebook and then it shifts over to Twitter where it becomes a sort of fuel to push the movement forward.

LG: And what's interesting is that that did affect how mainstream media started covering these kinds of events, right? One of the people you speak to, Tracy Clayton, who's the podcast host of Strong Black Legends said, "I knew that I couldn't trust White media for shit, the importance of people at the protest being able to capture footage and document what was going on it's priceless, priceless because the media has such an influence over how people think and how people feel and how people see Black people." And at that point I think in the oral history, Clayton is talking about Ferguson but what you're describing, right? The hashtag, people live streaming and sharing photos and videos on Twitter, I mean, that really affected I think the relationship between Twitter or online media and more of what we'd consider mainstream, right?

JP: Yeah. Tracy hit it right on the head right. So we had seen this in the news before plenty of times with Katrina when they said we were looting and so I think this was an instance where we can make the news for ourselves, there was this sort of for us and bias ethic, right? It's like we're down on the ground, we're reporting, we can get the news to our people in a way that we know is true and honest. There's emotion behind it, there's heart behind it, but this is what we're seeing and this is true and Twitter was the perfect platform for that at the time, right? And so the summer of 2014 we fast forward a year a little bit, right? We have Eric Garner who was killed in New York with, I can't breathe, we have a hashtag I can't breathe and then a month later we have Michael Brown which is the huge galvanizing moment in Ferguson that really, really shifts Twitter to the sort of social justice platform that people now use it for.

MC: One of the things that really mobilize people behind the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson was the visual evidence, right? Twitter is and was a real time platform where most people now have the algorithmic view that just shows you the things that are coming in from anywhere that have engagement that may be a couple hours old but at the time most people were looking at Twitter and they were seeing the most recent tweet. And you had first person eye witness accounts from some of Michael Brown's friends and neighbors, there was visual evidence and they were all posting visual evidence to Twitter and that was something that really kind of mobilized people.

JP: Yeah. So all the early, early, early sort of evidence and tweets were from his neighbors or from the community in Ferguson, right? Sarah Jackson, one of the people I spoke with who's the coauthor of #HashtagActivism, she was saying how the very first image that sort of cross people's timelines was taken by a neighbor of Michael Brown. And it was saying, hey, somebody has been shot out my window, he's on the street and things are happening people need to pay attention to this. And because of the sort of nature of Black Twitter where people start to riff on things that people have tweeted, the tweet sort of disseminates from there and gets out to the larger community. And people like Johnetta Elzie, who doesn't live exactly in Ferguson but she's one of the huge Ferguson activists, somebody DMed her was like, Netta hey, there's something happening in my community I think you need to see this.

And it's something she said to Netta, I talked to her for a really long time, she's great, she said that she said to me, we were all just community members in our houses but we were angry, we were upset and we went out on the street and we just wanted to document what was happening to us, right? And I think that's the real power of Twitter and Black Twitter, it gives people a platform to really get their voice out there in a way that all these other social platforms weren't doing.

LG: Another woman you interviewed for the oral history, Sylvia Obell, pointed out that Black Lives Matter was the first civil rights movement named after a hashtag. As Twitter has become so much more influential or even consequential in the face of these incredibly violent acts against the Black community how has that hashtag helped capture or define the ideology of this moment in time?

JP: I think it's really a hashtag to have been super, super transformational in the way that we convene, in the way that we congregate, in the way that we mobilize. I think maybe that's maybe one of Twitter's biggest impacts across all of culture in general, right? We use hashtags now for everything but I think it was really central to the movement that was catalyzing in 2013 and 2014 because as Wesley Lowery kind of explained to me, I was trying to make sense of it a little bit, because you had all these sort of different separated killings, right? So with Eric Garner in the summer of 2014 which predated Michael Brown, you had the hashtag, I can't breathe.

And then with Michael Brown you had, hands up, don't shoot, right? And then a little later that February you had with Sandra Bland, Say Her Name, but it was something about Black Lives Matter that was this umbrella hashtag, it sort of windowed in everything that was happening with all these other separated killings because it was a larger critique of the system, right? It was saying black lives matter, it was a very radical, it still is kind of a radical thing to say, right? And so I think Black Lives Matter sort of encapsulated what was happening across the country and what's happening still in a lot of ways because it was critiquing the larger system in a way that hadn't been before.

LG: But sometimes these hashtags are also co-opted or promoted by the wrong people too, right? And you spoke with someone for the oral history, April Reign, who pointed out that #MeToo was started by a Black woman, Toronto Burke, and it was popularized by Alyssa Milano, the actress who quote unquote overstepped, she needed to be checked, and Black Twitter did that. So that was also a pretty huge hashtag, right? But in that case maybe it was misappropriated.

JP: I think it kind of just speaks to kind of what happens to sort of Blackness online or what Black creators put into the internet, what we put in is not always what we get out, right? And so I think the story of Toronto Burke and her sort of creating the Me Too movement and hashtag and then a White woman coming in and sort of getting all the credit for it is very sort of representative of what it means to be Black online and sometimes even Black in America where these things are taken from us.

But I think again with Twitter, it's like now Twitter has the power to check, right? It's sort of the checks and balances system, right? Especially when you have Black Twitter behind you because as somebody else said in the oral history, once Black Twitter gets a hold of something, it's hard for it to stop and so once Black Twitter was like, Toronto Burke created this, she's the woman behind and the genius behind this, we need to say something, right? And so I think that's also the power to mobilize and the power to just push against a system that doesn't always have our best interests in mind is really important.

MC: And we'll continue seeing that happen even more recently where people have made a joke or posted a meme and it's origins were in Black Twitter and people will jump on them and say, you have to give credit where credit is due there.

JP: Right. So I think one of my favorite memes that's come out of Black Twitter it's, this you? Where people are sort of checking other folks and saying, hey, we started this, this is ours. It's tough though, I mean, in some ways I'm glad that Black Twitter exists in a sort of entity that it does because I think without it, it'd be harder to document all the things that we created online, right? And all the things that we continue to create, right? And so one thing that Andre Brock was saying how Black Twitter in itself is kind of like a living archive, right? It's constantly being updated and it's constantly growing, right? It's sort of a library of Congress but for Black folks online in a way, right?

And so I think that it's important to have it but it's also important that it acts like a checks and balances system too that say, hey, we're very protective of our space and this is ours and it's important to have things like that. Because I think in the same way that I wanted to document this oral history and I thought it was important to have this official record of Black Twitter, it's the same sort of sense behind that in that we need these things and these things are ours and we need people to know that we created these things.

MC: All right. Well, you can read more about the history of Black Twitter in Jason Parham awesome oral history. Part three is up now, it's a three-part series, you can read the whole thing on WIRED.com. It is also on the cover of WIRED magazine in September with an amazing painting illustration, beautiful cover so check it out. We're going to take a break right now and when we come back we will have our recommendations.


MC: All right. Welcome back to the show. Jason Parham, you are in hot seat, what's your recommendation for our audience?

JP: So one show I've been binging lately that I just recently finished. It came on Cinemax in 2019 and I think it was kind of a crime because nobody actually watches shows that come on Cinemax but they have a lot of good content. But now, because I guess of the deal with HBO Max all these Cinemax shows are on HBO Max, it's with Carla Gugino and Giancarlo Esposito, it's called Jett, J-E-T-T. It's a crime drama crime thriller about a thief named Daisy played by Carla Gugino and the crime boss, Giancarlo Esposito who's infamous from Breaking Bad as Gus Fring, it's amazing. There was only one season of it, they're nine episodes, each episode is an hour, it's shot beautifully, it also has Jodi Turner-Smith, all these amazing actors in it. Nobody's heard of this, I don't know if people ever talking about this which made me upset but I've been telling everybody to watch this show so watch this show.

MC: Also Giancarlo Esposito was Buggin Out.

JP: Yes. His iconic role, one of his earliest iconic roles. He's been in everything.

MC: He has been, he's amazing. I got to check that out.

LG: And so if there are only nine episodes, do they manage to wrap it up nicely in nine episodes or does it kind of end at a cliffhanger and then you're waiting to see if it gets renewed for second season?

JP: No, I think they thought they would have a season two because of how it ends but I don't think you'd be mad with the ending. I think it does feel like a full show but I kind of do want a season two. I don't know if it's going to happen but I mean, with the streaming these days who knows that somebody might pick it up, but.

MC: Yeah.

LG: Well maybe now that you've recommended on Gadget Lab they might hear this and renew it. Also, I think you're the first person to come on the show and make a Cinemax recommendation, so.

MC: Oh, no, no, no, we talked about The Knick a lot back when that was dying, that was a Cinemax show, wasn't it?

LG: Oh, OK.

JP: Well, I have two other Cinemax, The Knick was all time favorite top three show, I'd die for that show, that's one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life.

MC: It's so good.

JP: This other Cinemax show that a friend recently recommended, I just started this week, called Warrior. It's a Chinese Western about these sort of Chinese gangs in 1860 San Francisco. It's really cool, some of the coolest fighting I've ever seen and I just started, it's really fun.

MC: That's a fantastic show. And yeah, it's pulpy. Lauren, what's your recommendation?

LG: My recommendation is a podcast on a podcast, going meta here, I recommend that folks check out the July 28th episode of The Daily which is the New York Times daily news podcast. It's about the saga of Congress's January 6th investigation. So it's hosted by Michael Barbaro of course, and it features New York Times reporter Luke Broadwater. Some of you may have seen earlier this week the emotional testimonies from a handful of officers who protected the Capitol on that day, January 6th, they're really hard to watch and listen to because the officers detail the amount of violence and aggression and in some cases racist slurs that they were confronted with by this angry mob.

And this podcast episode is really about, kind of fast forwards now to how the House committee that's looking into this attack is not really the body that people wanted to look into it but the whole event has just become so politicized with members of the GOP being in lock step with Donald Trump or plotting for 2022 that even though it's generally recognized that he helped radicalize some of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol that day, there's a resistance to investigating it. So it's a really interesting episode, 100 percent worth a listen.

MC: Nice. The Daily, never heard of it.

LG: Yeah. It's The New York Times' daily news podcast. So actually I should say, "Hmm. Interesting you've never heard of it."

MC: Thanks for the recommendation.

LG: Mike, what's your recommendation?

MC: So I'm going to recommend a movie that I heard about for the first time on Black Twitter, it is a documentary it's called the Summer of Soul. It is on Hulu and it is a music documentary about the 1969 Harlem Music Festival. This is a music festival that has long been referred to as Black Woodstock, it's a little bit of a misnomer because it was actually multiple days over the summer of 1969. But it was a big concert in the park, in Harlem, everybody came out for it like Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, the list of names of people who played it is just fantastic. And there's some great footage of living legends like Mavis Staples singing with Mahalia Jackson, there's modern day talking head footage of people who were there and people who were involved and just people who have grown to love the music and are musicians now. Directed by Questlove.

LG: Nice.

MC: Drummer from The Roots, now he's a film director, he-

LG: Also, WIRED event DJ and has graced our cover and he's the name of one of our conference rooms here.

MC: That's right, we have a conference room named after Quest. And he's on Twitter a lot and there was a lot of discussion about this movie on Twitter and I saw the trailer for the first time on Twitter and when I watched it, I was watching it right as it dropped, it dropped a few weeks ago, so I was having discussions about it on Twitter while I was watching it, it was a great experience. Anyway, fantastic movie, it's on Hulu so if you have Hulu you may have seen ads for it and you may have been like, man, maybe that's not for me, trust me, it's for you, it's amazing. You get to see-

JP: Before watching it I don't think I've ever seen a young Stevie Wonder play the drums, I was blown away, it was mind blowing, it's so good.

MC: Actually that's one of the things that happened on Twitter, people were like, wow, Stevie, you can play the drums, I'm like, hey, hang on a second, Stevie can play the piano, he can play the drums, he can play the bass, he can play the harmonica, he can play any synthesizer made, he can sing better than anybody and he's blind, can't see a thing, he produces his own records too.

JP: What can't Stevie Wonder do?

MC: Oh man. So yeah, you got to see it, it's fantastic.

LG: It sounds amazing.

MC: Watch Stevie rip. All right. Well that's our show, Jason, thank you for joining us, it's a pleasure to have you.

LG: Thank you Jason.

JP: I had the best time. Thank you guys so much.

MC: You can find Jason's three parts saga, "A People's History of Black Twitter," on WIRED.com, look for the link in the show notes. Thanks to everybody for listening, if you have feedback you can find all of us on Twitter. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Goodbye, we will be back next week.

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