Near the end of 2009, during the twilight months of a decade that saw the first Black man elected to the US presidency, Ashley Weatherspoon was chasing virality on a young app called Twitter. As the personal assistant for the singer Adrienne Bailon, a former member of the pop groups 3LW and the Cheetah Girls, Weatherspoon often worked on social media strategy. For weeks, she and Bailon had been testing out hashtags on both their feeds to see what would connect with fans. A mild success came with variations on #UKnowUrBoyfriendsCheatingWhen. Later, on a car ride around Manhattan, they began playing with #UKnowUrFromNewYorkWhen. “We started going ham on it,” Weatherspoon told me when we spoke over the phone in June. As the two women were laughing and joking, an even better idea popped into Weatherspoon’s head. “Then I said, oh, ‘You know you’re Black when …’”
It was the first Sunday in September, at exactly 4:25 pm, when Weatherspoon logged on to Twitter and wrote, “#uknowurblackwhen u cancel plans when its raining.” The hashtag spread like wildfire. Within two hours, 1.2 percent of all Twitter correspondence revolved around Weatherspoon’s hashtag, as Black users riffed on everything from car rims to tall tees. It was the viral hit she was after—and confirmation of a rich fabric being threaded together across the platform. Here, in all its melanated glory, was Black Twitter.
More than a decade later, Black Twitter has become the most dynamic subset not only of Twitter but of the wider social internet. Capable of creating, shaping, and remixing popular culture at light speed, it remains the incubator of nearly every meme (Crying Jordan, This you?), hashtag (#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #OscarsSoWhite, #YouOKSis), and social justice cause (Me Too, Black Lives Matter) worth knowing about. It is both news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury—a comedy showcase, therapy session, and family cookout all in one. Black Twitter is a multiverse, simultaneously an archive and an all-seeing lens into the future. As Weatherspoon puts it: “Our experience is universal. Our experience is big. Our experience is relevant.”
Though Twitter launched exactly 15 years ago today, with the goal of changing how—and how quickly—people communicate online, the ingenious use of the platform by Black users can be traced, in a way, much further back in time. In 1970, when the computer revolution was in its infancy, Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, published an essay called “Technology & Ethos.” “How do you communicate with the great masses of Black people?” he asked. “What is our spirit, what will it project? What machines will it produce? What will they achieve?”
For Black users today, Twitter is Baraka’s prophetic machine: voice and community, power and empowerment. To use his words, it has become a space “to imagine—to think—to construct—to energize!!!” What follows is the first official chronicling of how it all came fantastically together. Like all histories, it is incomplete. But it is a beginning. An outline. Think of it as a kind of record of Blackness—how it moves and thrives online, how it creates, how it communes—told through the eyes of those who lived it.
As early web forums like BlackVoices, Melanet, and NetNoir fizzled out in the mid-2000s, online spaces that catered to Black interests were scarce. BlackPlanet and MySpace failed to fill the void, and Facebook didn’t quite capture the essence of real-time communication. Users were looking for the next thing.
Kozza Babumba, head of social at Genius: Pre-2007, we had never had a conversation about almost anything. As a community, we didn’t all talk about what it was like when we sang the national anthem. Or what it was like when OJ was driving in that white Bronco. We just watched it on TV.
André Brock, author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures: Black people have tried to create social networks and failed. Black people tried to create apps that would aggregate Black people to do certain things, usually for respectable purposes. Those also failed.
Johnetta Elzie, St. Louis activist: I had all those things—BlackPlanet, MySpace, LiveJournal. I was on Facebook when you needed an invite to get on. I was kinda just bored. So I was like, OK, what’s a tweet? What y’all talking about over here?
Brock: It quickly became clear that Twitter was a space for so much more—the shared sense of socializing together, but also the capacity to comment in near real time.
Elzie: Facebook was just slow. Twitter was new and fun.
Babumba: Right as I was joining, I was like, oh, Black people are on here. And we’re bodying it. We’re really going in.
April Reign, diversity and inclusion advocate: Almost immediately I realized this was a subsection of Twitter. And yet it was very clear that we were running the whole thing.
Brandon Jenkins, TV and podcast host: It was so quintessentially Black. It was really like, who’s the funniest?
Judnick Mayard, TV writer and producer: That was the hook that got me. I was like, OK, there’s some funny people on here, and most of those people are Black and also in college. It felt like being on the quad.
Sylvia Obell, host of the podcast OK Now Listen!: I went to an HBCU—North Carolina A&T State University. We were all just talking about things happening on campus.
Cashawn Thompson, educator: I wasn’t on until October ’08, when we were getting ready to elect Obama to his first term. I wanted to know what was going on, and I heard about Twitter.
Jamilah Lemieux, Slate columnist: I joined the day after Obama won. I wasn’t that far out from Howard.
Mayard: People who were working nine-to-fives didn’t have Twitter yet. High school kids weren’t really on Twitter. It was a specific millennial set.
Jenkins: We didn’t know what other people were thinking before Twitter. It was groundbreaking.
Tracy Clayton, host of the podcast Strong Black Legends: It filled a hole.
Brock: We make spaces out of spaces where we were not intended to be. That’s what we do.
It was a sense of community that crystallized on June 25, 2009, when Michael Jackson—never on Twitter himself, but a reliable source of joy, inspiration, and reaction GIFs—was checked into a hospital in Los Angeles.
Denver Sean, editor of LoveBScott.com: I was standing in line for Transformers at a movie theater in Atlanta when the news broke. Everybody was just staring at their phones. You could hear little Twitter chimes popping off. It was the most surreal thing.
Lemieux: It’s the first thing I remember really doing together as a family, if you will.
Sean: They hadn’t pronounced him dead just yet. While my mom and I were in line, I’m trying to keep up with the story. Then it hits that Michael died. Everybody’s phone is buzzing. Back then there were different Twitter apps—TweetDeck and TweetBot, early versions of Twitterific. I had them all and was familiar with the different sounds.
Jenkins: It took ABC News at least an hour before his passing came across the news ticker in Times Square. I remember thinking, “Damn, Twitter broke this news.”
Sean: This was before my mom’s generation took Twitter seriously. This was before people used Twitter as a news source. It was just something the kids were doing.
Babumba: I remember being like, “Can news travel that fast? Can you literally get news before the news? Can you be the news?” That’s what it was.
Lemieux: It changed who we look to for news.
Days later, the BET Awards were held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, not far from the hospital where Jackson died.
Sean: Everybody was watching the BET Awards together.
Brock: Talking about just how trash Ray J was or how poorly the Michael Jackson tribute was executed.
Obell: We always used to watch it isolated, but to watch it as a family, it felt like a cookout or family reunion type of moment.
Jenkins: It’s like people talking to the movie screen. But this time it was happening on Twitter. We were tweeting in our native tongue about stuff that was native to us.
Clayton: It was a place for me to go to get away from all of the whiteness that I was surrounded by.
God-is Rivera, global director of culture and community at Twitter: I was understanding that there could be a communal experience that is really specific about our lived experience, which is being Black in America as we watch something or as we ingest something.
By the end of 2009 the Black presence on Twitter was undeniable, and the media began referring to it as “Black Twitter”—a term not everyone embraced at first.
Mayard: It’s ironic. I hate the phrase “Black community,” because we’re not a community. Like, I don’t know all you niggas; we ain’t all friends. But at the same time, I love Black Twitter because it is a community that is an actual Black community.
Jenkins: But we weren’t calling it Black Twitter back then. It was just Twitter.
Mayard: Nothing was coming off of Twitter into the media yet. You wouldn’t go there with the purpose of, “I’m about to say something. I want lots of people to hear it.” Because it’s like, who’s gonna hear it? You stuck to your voice because you weren’t really looking for an audience.
Brock: It was a porch kind of space, where people would just congregate with people they knew and talk about things that were passing them by.
Mayard: The first time I realized that we were organized as Black Twitter was #TwitterAfterDark. It was like, oh, these regular people are making dirty jokes and joking about horny motherfuckers.
Reign: Third-shift Twitter was when things would get quite racy—after 11 pm Eastern time.
Mayard: It was the era of the manual retweet, and we were starting to see the phenomenon of people adding onto a joke. The performance that really comes with Black Twitter was starting to happen.
Lemieux: Someone wrote this article about “Late Night Black People Twitter.” That was around the time that people started to coalesce around that terminology. For me, it was a very natural extension of what had been happening on MySpace and via the Black blogosphere.
Brock: A lot of discussions began to pop off around what it meant to be represented as Black in a tech space.
Jenkins: We were having this moment where the rest of the world was realizing that we did things in groups.
Clayton: It annoyed me because it was just such a frenzy around, “Why are the Blacks tweeting?” For me, Twitter was just Twitter. I felt we were being put under a microscope.
Elzie: I’m not even sure why people called Black Twitter that before 2014. Before Ferguson, we seemed to exist in regional pockets. There was STL Twitter, Chicago Twitter, New York Twitter, Atlanta Twitter, Miami, LA, Houston and Dallas. But there was no real, “Hi, this is everyone and we are all Black Twitter.”
Rembert Browne, creative lead for brand and voice at Twitter: At a certain point I remember being out in New York and someone told me that I was part of Black Twitter—and that being surreal, because I didn’t think of myself as part of anything.
Michael Arceneaux, author of I Don’t Want to Die Poor: Most white people are not around Black people. We don’t really mix outside of work. That’s when I realized: White people are watching. [Laughs.]
As the notion of a “Black Twitter” took off, celebrities, musicians, and other artists joined in, attracting more media attention and more users.
Ashley Weatherspoon, founder of DearYoungQueen.com: I was working for Adrienne Bailon and Fabolous, the rapper, who at the time was the Tweet God. He used to be on Twitter in the beginning like you wouldn’t believe.
Jenkins: Fab used to be the Twitter all-star. It opened up a whole new lane in his persona. He started to become a really humorous character.
Weatherspoon: And in this really unique way we were kind of using the feedback to drive things. For Fab, if something would land with Black Twitter, it would become a line in a verse on a rap song.
Mayard: The only reason to go on Twitter in the beginning was to talk to celebrities. It felt like you were in their head. You wake up and see Questlove has said something to you, and you’re like, whoa.
Weatherspoon: Fab would say a joke, and then three fans would respond and he would retweet those fans. All of a sudden it felt less like fans and celebrities—it felt like the community. It allowed people to just be so open and honest and transparent on the platform because you could be received by a celebrity. Your thought could be received by the head of a network or the head of a record label. There was access to people who had the power to take your sentiment or your thought and bring life to it.
Arceneaux: I don’t think she was on Love & Hip-Hop yet, but Hazel-E was at the time trying to rap. God bless her, but that wasn’t it. I blogged about not liking her video. My mouth is kinda reckless. I can be harsh. And she came at me on Twitter, and we went back and forth.
Clayton: It felt so indulgent to be able to do that. It was like, whoa, I can tweet at Rihanna and tell her what I think, without having to have 18 billion dollars or being in her social circle?
Sean: Rihanna came for Ciara. And then Rihanna clapped back on TLC. She really used to be the queen of social media.
Elzie: It was the Wild Wild West. It was crazy. It was like that GIF where Childish Gambino walks into a room with a pizza box and the room is on fire. That was it.
Entertainment continued to fuel the early years of Black Twitter, culminating in one of the most unlikely events yet: the 2012 premiere of Scandal on ABC.
Obell: Scandal was the show that changed live-tweeting. It was so crazy, it had a Black lead, it was on network TV. I remember thinking, this is going to change how people talk about TV. And it did.
Clayton: The fact that everybody was talking about the show so publicly, it definitely drove up the popularity. I don’t know that I would have watched it without the Black Twitter viewing party.
Obell: That was the first show I remember thinking, “I have to be on Twitter while it’s on.”
Rivera: I’m from New York. Scandal to me was like being in the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem. If you see a lot of Black people in there, it is usually lit. You ain’t gonna hear most of the movie, but you’re going to have a good time.
Clayton: It got even crazier when Shonda Rhimes herself would jump in on the conversation, answer questions and address somebody’s sassy little tweet. It was one big house party.
Obell: When I think about the earliest day I was ever overwhelmed on Twitter, it was the Scandal finale, when we found out that Eli Pope was Olivia’s dad, which was one of the craziest plot twists to ever happen on the show. I tweeted a photo of me on the floor pretending to be passed out.
Clayton: When you let us do what we want and let us use our voices, when you leave us alone, we do what Black people always do—gather and talk shit and enlighten and be funny and smart.
Brock: Twitter lets the Black community do the thing that it does best, which is signifying—being able to use wordplay or turns of phrase to change the meaning of certain events, to either be more humorous or more critical. Many immigrant communities have a form of signifying. But for some reason, the way Black folk do it on Twitter has really taken off and has really become definitive of what internet culture is.
Of course, it wasn’t all champagne and good times. The burgeoning cultural force that was Black Twitter came with its share of problems—some downright nasty.
Reign: Our culture is appropriated all the time, in every industry, in a myriad of ways, and that is also true within Black Twitter.
Clayton: I wasn’t as aware of how it was going to become a bastion of cultural appropriation.
Reign: I think of Peaches Monroee, who created “on fleek” with that viral Vine. There’s so many examples of how Black Twitter has been undermonetized for years, and yet others have been able to make entire careers off of our brilliance.
Clayton: It really changed the way in which Black culture gets discovered by white folks—and then quickly incorporated into ads and TV shows with white people making money off of it.
Mayard: It is the first time in history that we have digital proof that y’all copy us. Every single thing that we do.
Reign: There are issues with respect to various brands taking our ideas and running with them. There are issues with social media accounts that are clearly not run by Black people attempting to use African American Vernacular English and getting it way wrong. All of that is an issue.
Lemieux: Especially when you get any modicum of visibility as a Black woman, your Twitter experience falls apart.
Reign: Things change not always for the better when you have more followers. This is a running joke—more followers, more problems.
Lemieux: From the beginning of Twitter, it was absolutely fucked up to be a Black feminist on there. There’s a target on your head. Twitter gave a microphone to people who might not otherwise have had it, but it didn’t come with instructions on how you cope with strangers gossiping about the details of your personal life, or how you deal with death threats.
Mayard: When we come into a space, everyone is trying to figure out how to measure up next to us. And that is a lot of what causes resentment for our presence. That causes people to be mad that we are present.
Then, on February 26, 2012, a young boy in Sanford, Florida, was fatally shot on his walk back from the local 7-Eleven.
Rivera: I was a new mom. My daughter just started day care, and I was back at work. I was racing down the highway. I had to be at day care by 6:30 pm, and I would listen to The Michael Baisden Show on Sirius. He was talking about this mother, Sybrina Fulton, who had been calling in to just try and get some national recognition around this man who had killed her son in Florida. She was so upset because this man hadn’t even been arrested, and there was no answer.
Babumba: It was our beautiful boy down there—Trayvon Martin.
Rivera: When I finally figured out his name, I put it into Google. That was when I saw a tweet come up. People were tweeting about what was happening. That was the only place I found it.
Arceneaux: It was very specific to Twitter.
Rivera: I started seeing people whose blogs I followed—people like Jamilah Lemieux, Michael Arceneaux, and Demetria Lucas—talking about this thing. It was specifically Black people who were outraged about what was happening to this mother down in Florida.
Mayard: You saw Black people calling white people’s bullshit in real time because we were experiencing in-real-time pain.
Weatherspoon: All of a sudden we as Black Twitter and a community were able to put the heat and the pressure on them.
Rivera: I remember being a little nervous to say how I really felt. It was through discovering the story that I was just like, I can’t be silent about this. Watching other Black people speak their truth, it gave me the courage to be like, well, even if nobody’s listening to me, I am going to say how I feel.
What users couldn’t foresee, even as they continued to speak up, was that an even bigger storm was on the horizon. The fight for Black lives would become the most transformational movement not simply for Twitter but for the entire country. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Part II will be published on July 22.
Photographs: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images; Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty Images; Danny Feld/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images; Charley Gallay/Getty Images; Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison/Getty Images; Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images; Hamza Khan/Alamy
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