Archival Recording: Chaos and confusion are trending at Twitter as the company is on the brink of collapse.
Archival Recording: The entirely predictable, slow rolling, five-alarm thermonuclear dumpster fire.
Archival Recording: Thanks to the fragile ego of billionaire CEO Elon Musk.
Trymaine Lee: It's been just over a month since Elon Musk became CEO of Twitter, capping off a month's long controversial $44 billion takeover. During that month, an estimated two thirds of the company's employees have been laid off or have resigned.
Archival Recording: So just over 2,000 staffers remain, and they are presumably working extremely hard core to keep the platform from crumbling. Many now former employees doubt that they will be successful. As one former executive put it, quote, "They will struggle just to keep the lights on."
Lee: As of now, Twitter, with its 450 million active users, is still live, but it feels very far from the site's original mission when it started back in 2006.
Jack Dorsey: Twitter has a long story.
Lee: This is co-founder Jack Dorsey sharing the inspiration behind Twitter on the Charlie Rose Show a decade ago.
Dorsey: What if with just SMS on the web, I can go anywhere I want and report what I'm doing and then see what everyone else is doing in real time? Very, very simple start and the users have taken it from there.
Lee: That chronological timeline, with posts limited to just 140 characters, made Twitter a destination for breaking news, viral pop culture and spreading social movements for hundreds of millions of people. It also quickly became a hotspot for bullying, racism and harassment, setting off debates over free speech versus hate speech, and how the site should handle the difference. But in spite of the hateful rhetoric which could become violent and scary, communities, big and small, spring up within Twitter's ecosystem. One of the largest and the most important is Black Twitter.
Archival Recording: Why the fuck are you lying? Why are you always lying?
Archival Recording: I need you to hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband because they're raping anybody out here?
Archival Recording: Look, I got beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes, lamb, rams, hogs, dogs, chicken, turkeys, rabbits, you name it.
Lee: Black Twitter is a showcase of artistry, intellectualism, humor, pain and joy. This space provides memes like the Michael Jordan crying face to culture shifting hashtags turn social movements like OscarsSoWhite, which went viral in 2015 after each of the acting nominations went to white people.
Archival Recording: The hashtag took off on Black Twitter and then went viral, sparking epically hilarious and biting tweets like this, #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.
Lee: April Reign who wrote that tweet which kicked off the campaign said last year, there had been some progress as a result.
April Reign: The Academy committed to doubling the number of people of color and doubling the number of women within their ranks by last year, by 2020. And in fact, they met that goal. But the Academy is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male.
Lee: And, of course, there's Black Lives Matter, which got its start on Facebook.
Archival Recording: The phrase Black Lives Matter was first coined in 2013 by three African-American women in response to George Zimmerman's acquittal.
Lee: But it really took off as a viral hashtag on Twitter in 2014 when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. And from that moment, a movement was born.
Archival Recording: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Lee: Through the years, Black Twitter has also raised awareness around other tragedies that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. Recently, Shanquella Robinson, a 25-year-old black woman from North Carolina, died while on vacation with her friends in Mexico under mysterious circumstances.
At first, her death didn't get covered in the media until Black Twitter made the story viral. Now, Mexican prosecutors say they've issued a warrant for one of the friends and are seeking to extradite the suspect from the United States. Shanquella's mother told NBC News that she believes black social media users have been crucial in keeping attention on her daughter's story and the family's quest for answers.
Many black users are worried about the site's future under Elon Musk, a billionaire scion of South Africa's apartheid apparatus who recently posted a video mocking T-shirts bearing the #staywoke made by Twitter's black employee group in the aftermath of Mike Brown's killing.
Musk champions himself some sort of purveyor of free speech. He's removed numerous content restrictions and even reinstated some, let's just say, very notable banned accounts.
Archival Recording: Twitter CEO Elon Musk just reinstated the account of former President Donald Trump. This does end a 22-month ban, a direct result of the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
Lee: And during the midterms, Musk used the platform to encourage what he called independent-minded voters to vote for Republican candidates.
While we're waiting to understand the long-term implications of Musk Twitter takeover, many users are getting out now, like the one and only Whoopi Goldberg, who announced her departure on ABC's "The View."
Whoopi Goldberg: I'm getting off. I'm getting off today because, you know, it's so messy and I'm tired of now having had certain kinds of attitudes blocked and now they're back on. And I'm going to get out as of tonight. I'm done with Twitter.
Lee: And if the platform ceases to exist in the way it has for more than 15 years, if Black Twitter ceases to exist, what does that mean for the culture and for America?
Archival Recording: I think a lot is at stake. I think it is a loss for American culture. The careers that started from Twitter, I think of the way that our humor has been allowed to flourish and thrive. I think that's going to be more devastating than we realize.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is "Into America."
Today, the legacy of Black Twitter, its importance as one of the Internet's most influential and creative communities, and why its future matters. I wonder if you could describe what the current state of Black Twitter is. Where we at in this moment? Where we stand today?
Meredith Clark: Where are we? We are in chaos. We are of people in crisis right now.
Lee: Meredith D. Clark is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. She's one of the very few people who actually studies Black Twitter from an academic lens and she says the chaos has underscored the importance of Twitter.
Clark: We are finding how to connect with each other beyond this platform. We are reifying the bonds that we have. We know how much we value being able to see and connect with one another. And so, we're making sure that we hold onto that despite the sort of change that's happening.
And that's really something that black folks in the U.S. have had to do over time. When we were taken out of certain school systems and bused to other school systems, we still maintained community connections within our neighborhoods.
When we go into majority white workspaces and we're doing the jobs that our communities have sent us there to do, we still come back to our communities because that's where we are fed. So, while we're all having a good time sort of watching Twitter burn and, you know, cracking jokes because that's one of the ways that we cope with these sort of challenges, we are also looking to really hold on to the bonds that we've built. And I think that's where we are in this moment.
Lee: Meredith started her research on this Twitter subculture a decade ago, and what began as a graduate school dissertation is now set to become a book about Black Twitter coming out next year. And through the years, she's had to perfect her explanation of what Black Twitter actually is.
Clark: So, I've got my technical definition and then there's just the real definition. The technical definition, I describe Black Twitter as a series of culturally linked communicators talking about issues of concern to black folks, black communities. But the basic answer to that is Black Twitter is black people using Twitter and using it the way that we talk to one another in everyday life.
Lee: Well, was that like obvious when you first started seeing how black were using Twitter or did you have to like kind of discover like, okay, I see what's going on here?
Clark: I could see that there was a difference between what I was experiencing as I was using Twitter during the day versus what I was seeing at night when I was just kind of lurking and looking around there. Watching event shows with Black Twitter, that was such a good time.
Like watching the BET Awards, just being with your folks, it was kind of like when you go to a black movie with a bunch of other black people and we're all in the theater shouting back at the characters on the screen, but now you're doing that with tens of hundreds of other people. They're all in your phone and you're doing it from the comfort of your own home. That was such a dynamic process. It was like being together alone at the same time, and that made Twitter really fun.
Lee: One thing about community is that you feel at home, and you feel safe. And so, how was Twitter had been a safe space for black people?
Clark: Well, I would never describe any part of the Internet as safe. I think going back to just the Internet's founding as a tool of the military and its connectivity. But people create and curate safer spaces for themselves by who they choose to follow, what sort of content they allow into their feed using the controls that Twitter developed over time in response to user's needs. That is one way that people were able to create safer spaces for themselves online.
I know it was something I definitely did when I was in graduate school. I was able to connect with black communities in what was a very white space for me, and I did all of that through Twitter.
Lee: You know, cultures and subgroups have certain languages. There's certain cadence to how you speak to each other and what you do. Black Twitter exemplified that, right?
But when you started studying this in an academic kind of way and bringing this back to white colleagues, how did white academia, did they get this, were able to get their arms around it, did not understand, were they asking you how to get to Black Twitter?
Clark: Yeah. I definitely got the questions about how to get to Black Twitter and those didn't just come from white folks. They came for some older black folks. I remember my mom at one point called me and asked about how to get to Black Twitter.
But when I brought it into academic spaces and specifically when I brought it to my committee responsible for getting me through my dissertation process, I really had to persuade people that this was a thing. What is particular about academic work and academic scholarship is that we build on what others have already done.
So, I'm talking about a phenomenon that was relatively new and the way to make it translatable to the people in my department and in the university was to cast it as community. So, they were familiar with studies of black communities like Du Bois' Study of Philadelphia or someone like Mary Pattillo Beals and her study of black suburbia.
And when I was able to say, you know, this is another form of community, it's just happening in digital spaces, then they were able to get it. And that made it easier to understand that this is not just a bunch of people playing around on a site. There are bonds here that are much stronger than that.
Lee: You talk about, you know, bringing your academic heft to studying Twitter and I wonder what is your research actually look like?
Clark: That is a great question, and no one has asked yet. So, when I started this work for my dissertation, I had two objectives. One was to find out how Black Twitter described itself and the other was to figure out how the media described Black Twitter, news media.
When I collected my data in 2012 to do that particular study, news media was not writing about, quote, "Black Twitter." But the black folks who were on Twitter knew exactly what it was, and they knew how to describe it. They talked about the community ties, what it meant to be there and how they interacted with one another.
My research focuses on Black Twitter's shape in terms of its structure and also its function. And so, I came up with this process of black digital resistance where I talk about how we use language in our own communicative practices to push back on this idea, not just this idea, but the sense of anti-blackness that is pervasive throughout the world. So, how we show up in digital spaces and are showing up there actually is fighting back against anti-blackness, whether or not we are really aiming for a fight.
Lee: When we think back to all the hashtags like BlackLivesMatter, OscarsSoWhite, MeToo, why did it resonate so differently and take hold in that Twitter space in ways that it hadn't in, say, Facebook?
Clark: So, there are two things to keep in mind about these forms of digital activism as we know them. One is how the platforms themselves work. So, I describe Facebook as almost a gated community style social networking site. Your posts are only available to people that you choose to make them to. So, you get to allow certain people in, keep other people out.
Twitter is a broadcast model social networking site. So, everyone's kind of speaking at the same time and you can see all of these conversations as they're unfolding. And the function of the hashtag makes it a lot easier to organize those discussions.
So, even though something like BlackLivesMatter started on Facebook, it took off on Twitter because people could actually see that hashtag and they could see the conversations that were unfolding around it. In fact, if you go back and you read some of the coverage at that time, there were people who had no idea what was happening in Ferguson or around the Black Lives Matter hashtag if they were primarily using Facebook. They did see it if they were on Twitter.
Lee: And how has it all evolved, matured, changed over the years?
Clark: It's evolved in a number of ways. One of the ones that I think is clearly observable is seeing how the different generations have come of age on this platform. I love watching the cute little babies in Gen Z who insist that they have created all of these forms of digital culture. Get schooled by O.G. Black Twitter, who've been there since the site launched and people were actually texting to a website that posted their text as tweets. Learning about what it means to be in a digital space and to sort of, I don't want to say settle or colonize it but make it pop and really to make it a space where other people want to be.
Lee: Given everything you understand about Twitter and Black Twitter, obviously, Elon Musk has changed everything. What's your best bet? Is Twitter, as we know it, going to survive? What do you think?
Clark: No. I don't think Twitter, as we know it, survives in the same way. Maybe the site survives. Maybe the platform survives. But, no, it's going to have an evolution, you know. It's already pushing certain people out. It would take a lot for those people to come back. This is one of those historical moments that you cannot replicate or recreate. And so, if Elon Musk's aim was to be totally disruptive, he has succeeded.
Lee: When we come back from the break, I sit down with one of the Black Twitter's OGs. We take a closer look at the times Black Twitter made us laugh and some of the ways it showed us the perils of the Internet. Stick with us.
Lee: When did you first get on Twitter? I know you've been on there for a minute.
Jamilah Lemieux: It's been a journey and it started for me November 5, 2008, the day after President Obama was elected for the first time.
Barack Obama: We will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes, we can.
Lee: Back in 2008, Jamilah Lemieux was fresh out of Howard University, trying to make her way in the world as a young writer, just as the Internet was changing the way we communicate with each other.
Lemieux: I posted on my MySpace blog like, come on, you guys, there's this cool new thing. We've got to get on it, you know, and I brought people with me.
Lee: With a penchant for hip-hop, feminism and combating the status quo, she quickly became one of Black Twitter's elite. Her tweets eventually got the attention of Ebony Magazine where she became a writer and later, senior editor. She's also written for Slate, Vanity Fair and the L.A. Times, and she has more than 175,000 followers.
Over the years, Jamilah has had some pretty high highs, but also some pretty low lows, like harassment from conservative pundits and white supremacists. But in the beginning, Twitter's appeal was simple.
Lemieux: It was just the level of real-time communication, you know, that it was a conversation that never ended, you know, and you could jump in where you saw fit, when you had time, which for a lot of us became all of the time, and just the access to people I never would have had access to before.
I was beginning my career as a writer when I joined Twitter. I was able rather quickly to connect with writers that I had grown up admiring, people like Dream Hampton and Kiernan Maio (sp?) and Turei (sp?) and Michaela Angela Davis and I strengthened that relationship through Twitter. It just opened up a lot of doors for me.
Lee: And then it became part of this Black Twitter. We have a sense of what it is. It's community. There's in groups. There's a language. It's a different thing all together in this space, a subgroup in the space. But how do you describe it?
Lemieux: Black Twitter is black people doing what we do when we come together. You know what I mean? Like taking care of each other, laughing and joking and sharing information. You know, it's just us existing in community in public.
There's never been a news sharing platform like Twitter. There's never been a place where things, as they happen in real time, can be discussed by this many people, and a place where people felt safe telling their side of the story.
Lee: When we think about the expanse of information, the way we share it in real time, I think about the discovering of people who died, who we lost. I think of the funny, hilarious moments in character and some of the people that we follow who are just brilliant, right? And the meme culture, everything that came out of that. And I wonder for you, what have been some of your favorite Black Twitter moments?
Lemieux: Oh my God, there's so many. The important one for me was the death of Michael Jackson. Just having other people with me as I was at work by myself trying to process this thing that was happening. Every time we watch an award show, I mean, like the night that Kanye ran up on Taylor Swift.
Kanye West: You know, Taylor, I'm really happy for you. I'll let you finish. But Beyoncé have one of the best videos of all time.
Lemieux: Just experiencing those things in real time with Twitter was just really something. I think, about the death of Trayvon Martin.
Archival Recording: Justice for Trayvon. Justice for Trayvon. Justice for Trayvon.
Lemieux: That even though it wasn't the sort of outcome we would have wanted, that there would have been no prosecution of George Zimmerman whatsoever without Twitter intervening.
Lee: Twitter is a complicated place for Jamilah. She's made friends, got jobs, even met the father of her child through the platform. But she's also been the target of vicious racist harassment campaigns.
One time, back in 2014, it got really bad when Jamilah was an editor at Ebony, and she got an email about a new magazine for black conservatives from Ben Carson and Armstrong Williams.
Lemieux: And so, I tweeted about it And then some woman like says, oh, we'd love to get more information, and she tags a few black conservatives who I don't know who these people are. And I'm like, I wish I had less information. I don't want to know about this shit, you know?
And so, this guy who's tweeting from an account with a profile picture featuring him and Ronald Reagan, first glance, I think he's a white guy, he says, well, that's disappointing. You know, I expect that somebody with your position would be interested in a diversity of thought, trying to kind of bait me into being interested in this thing. And I said, well, I don't need a white guy to tell me how to do this black editor thing.
Lee: But it turned out the man tweeting at Jamilah wasn't white. He was Raffi Williams, the biological son of conservative pundit Juan Williams.
Lemieux: I had not (inaudible) in his Twitter avatar. So, all I see is a very pale skin person standing in front of Ronald Reagan. So, I did not assume black, you know, and I apologized to him. I said, well, I'm sorry for misidentifying you, you know, I said, but I'm still not interested in hearing about this platform.
And so, the way that the GOP, like the actual GOP, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, Sean Spicer is the communications director for the party at this point, decide to spin it is that I was calling him white as an insult. You know, like, oh, he's a Republican, so he's a white boy.
Lee: They went wild. I remember that time was like, damn.
Lemieux: It was crazy, you know. And so, like, they demanded an apology and when my employer did not publicly apologize, they went on Fox News. They issued a letter condemning me and Ebony. And then my employer did apologize. And then black people were mad at Ebony, as they should have been, because it was crazy for them. So, I apologized. I mean, I have thousands and thousands of conservative accounts blocked.
Lee: Jamilah says moments like this eventually led her to take a step back from the platform.
Lemieux: You can only spend but so much time, you know, being told that you're not smart or that you're ugly or that your ideas are bad before. It takes a toll on you. And I realized now that, like by 2019, I'd really been kind of burnt out. Like I've been quiet for a few years focusing on other things and kind of trying to figure out what I'm doing next and what the kind of post Twitter version of my career looks like.
It just became such a toxic space and I think black women were so unprotected there. And I think things have gotten better in a way to some extent that when a black woman is piled on, maybe a younger black woman, that there may be a lot of people that'll jump in on her side now. But when folks in my peer group, we're going up against the misogynists and the white supremacists, oftentimes we are by ourselves. Nobody wants to get involved with this because I don't want to be targeted, too.
Lee: When you consider Twitter from where we sit right now, having this conversation as it may or may not survive the takeover of Elon Musk, and we think about the beauty to come from black culture, but also a lot of the pain, right, the weaponizing of social media against us, the divisions that it created within us.
When you think also about like all of the content creation that was exploited and taken, right, as black people, we're over indexing and we're over engaging, but we're also creating.
Lee: And people are making money off of that. Was Twitter, pound for pound, good for us as black people for the culture?
Lemieux: I think it was. I think it was. I think there's this privileged group of us that actually made money from Twitter, specifically from selling goods or doing, you know, online content or pushing our writing, you know. Like it was directly connected to us, making money, furthering our careers.
And then I think for us more broadly, there's the way that it just expanded the power of the black voice, us being able to find each other. I mean, one of the biggest losses is going to be mutual aid, and I've benefited from this before.
Early in my career, Twitter paid my phone bill one month. And just the mount of crowdsourcing that has taken place, Black Twitter and Disability Twitter are, you know, very good for this. I can't tell you the number of times I've kicked in a couple of bucks because somebody needed their medication or was unhoused or sometimes for someone's birthday. People gave me money on my birthday one year. You know what I mean? I've done that for playing with other people. Buy you a drink for your birthday, you know. Here's ten bucks because you've made my Twitter experience better.
We've just cared for each other. I mean, as a single parent, when I first had my daughter, I needed to talk to somebody about mothering this baby and Twitter was there for me. I mean, for a long time, like, my daughter was very much a part of my Twitter life and just sharing the joys and, you know, experiences of mothering her.
Lee: The end of Twitter would also mean the end of Black Twitter. And what do you think that loss would mean to not just how we engage with and view black culture but American culture? What would this loss mean? What's at stake here?
Lemieux: I think a lot is at stake. I think it is a loss for American culture. I think of the careers that started from Twitter. I think of the way that our humor has been allowed to flourish and thrive, you know, and inspire Hollywood greatly. That's just being funny among us on Twitter. I just think about that organizing place, you know, like we still have Instagram. Many of us, I think, have Facebook accounts that are just dormant because --
Lee: Well, that’s for family.
Lemieux: That's for family. But I don't know, like there is grief for me because this feels like a loss. And even though I lost Twitter a long time ago, it meant something that it was there. And I think that's going to be more devastating than we realize.
Lee: You know, there's a lot that might be lost in some new version of Twitter if it continues to exist at all. But I got to appreciate some of the joyous moments, too.
Like the brother called Finally Aaron remixing the Golden Girls theme song.
Finally Aaron: So we started from the bottom, now we here, girl. Oh, yeah. It's my butt back right here.
Lee: And he does it in a way that captures the creativity, joy and community of Black Twitter.
Finally Aaron: The bad ass gets the bad guys.
Lee: And if you consider yourself a friend of "Into America," reach out. We're doing a listener mailbag episode later this month where instead of me asking the questions, I answer yours. So, hit us up on #blacktwitter, Instagram or Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod.
If there's a question you have for me about the show or about anything, I'm going to try to answer it. As an extra special treat, my daughter Nola will join me as my co-host for the day. You can also send a voice memo or an email with your question to email@example.com. That's firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Into America" is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Mike Brown, Aaron Dalton and Max Jacobs. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our Executive Producer is Aisha Turner.
I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.