'Black Twitter: the history of a people' explains the origins of a subculture

When Hulu announced it was launching a docuseries about Black Twitter, the streamer received an immediate notice from… Black Twitter. Users complained about appropriation, from mainstream media, about The Man swooping in to claim a piece of a sacred subculture. As one person posted on the platform: “Black Twitter's response to the Black Twitter doc is very #BlackTwitter.”

The creators of “Black Twitter: A People's History,” the three-part series that premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March and debuted on Hulu on Thursday, expected no less.

“There is a fear of how we will be represented in Hollywood,” said executive producer and director Prentice Penny, along with executive producer and showrunner Joie Jacoby and producer Jason Parham at SXSW. “There is fear about who is telling this story. “It's okay to be skeptical because sometimes Hollywood hasn't been responsible for these things.”

“It's because they love it as much as we do,” Jacoby said. “And they want to make sure we're doing it right. It is a huge responsibility”.

Director Prentice Penny, left, showrunner Joie Jacoby and producer Jason Parham, whose Wired magazine story is the basis of the Hulu documentary series.

(Andrés Walker / Disney)

Based on an oral history written by Parham and published in Wired magazine in 2021, “Black Twitter” covers a variety of topics, some serious (Black Lives Matter, Trayvon Martin, the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol ), others less so (the television drama “Scandal”, Michael Jordan crying memes, R&B problems). But its main theme is how black people have used the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, now XXI century. It also looks at how the platform has changed since Elon Musk bought it in 2022, making it a playground for hate speech and a less hospitable place for minorities.

For those wondering, there is no magic portal to Black Twitter, nor a secret handshake.

“White people talk about black Twitter like it's Wakanda,” Parham says in the series.

Instead, as the series details, Black Twitter is an organically created community of Black Twitter users, flexing their collective muscle to crack jokes and push for social justice (and show off some formidable Photoshop skills). It's the land of a thousand hashtags, from #OscarsSoWhite to #Thanksgivingclapback and #BlackGirlsAreMagic. It helped focus attention on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It's a hotbed of inside jokes that come to light.

Parham traces the emergence of Black Twitter to around 2009, a couple of years after the platform became the talk of SXSW. “Black millennials were looking for a place to communicate,” she said. “The recession is happening. We don't have much agency in the population and we don't get jobs. We just want to connect online. Twitter was the place to do it. “It felt like a giant group chat.”

As Parham wrote in his oral history: “It is both news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury: a comedy performance, a therapy session, and a family cookout, all in one. “Black Twitter is a multiverse, both an archive and an all-seeing lens into the future.”

As Jacoby says: “For us it's just Twitter.”

'Black Twitter' takes the viewer through approximately 15 years of Black Twitter highlights, with commentators including comedian Baratunde Thurston, author and cultural critic Roxane Gay, and journalist Wesley Lowery, offering analysis and personal recollections. The series is often hilarious, especially when it delves into some of the most fruitful hashtags on black Twitter, like #Thanksgivingclapback (“Grandma: 'This place is a mess.' Me: 'Well, that wig too.'”) We also see the First #OscarsSoWhite postfrom 2015, courtesy of April Reign: “#OscarsSoWhite asked me to touch my hair.”

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign is one of many cases in which black missives on Twitter generated concrete change, prompting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify its membership. Here we see black Twitter as a cultural force. But it's also usually fun, like a normal Twitter with more flavor. And sometimes it reaches epic reach, like when a stripper named Zola posted a 148-tweet thread in 2015 about her misadventures with a fellow stripper in Florida. That became the 2020 film “Zola.”

The series highlights how Black Twitter users have taken advantage of the platform's capacity for improvisation, the same quality that fuels blues, jazz and comedians from Redd Foxx to Richard Pryor and Kevin Hart.

“It's like the way we talk about how black people got the worst of the food as slaves and made soul food,” Penny said. “Or how hip-hop culture took old James Brown records and started scraping them and cutting them and doing something else with them. “Black Twitter became another way to reuse things.”

A woman wearing a blue floral top and white pants sitting with her hands on her knees.

April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, in “Black Twitter: A People's History.”

(Clarence Williams/Disney)

“Black Twitter” also analyzes Amiri Baraka’s essay “Technology & Ethos,” which explores how technology is imbued with the values ​​of its creators. Twitter was created by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams in 2006. But you could argue that Black Twitter was created by black users.

In the series, Thurston brings everything down to earth a bit. “Black people are very loud,” he says. “We will turn anything into an instrument of our expression, and Twitter is no exception.”

Technically speaking, black Twitter no longer exists, because Twitter no longer exists. Musk renamed the platform X in 2023, although most still call it by its original name. Musk also reinstated many users who had been suspended for inciting hate and spreading falsehoods. As the series explains, racist invectives have become more common under the platform's new management. (I deleted my account last year, worn down by bots and trolls). The party may not be over, but it feels a lot crueler.

Like other social media users, Black Twitter users are looking forward to what comes next and making it more vital in every way.

“Twitter was never for us in the first place, but we still created our own space,” Parham said. “For those of us who want to stay on the platform, I think we will find a way to communicate and support each other. “It won’t look like it did before, but it will look like something different and it will be something for us.”

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