Near the end From 2009, during the twilight months of a decade that saw the first black man elected to the presidency of the United States, Ashley Weatherspoon was pursuing virality on a young app called Twitter. As a personal assistant to singer Adrienne Bailon, a former member of pop groups 3LW and the Cheetah Girls, Weatherspoon has often worked on social media strategy. For weeks, she and Bailon had been testing hashtags on both of their feeds to see what would connect with fans. Slight success came with variations on #UKnowUrBoyfriendsCheatingWhen. Later, on a drive around Manhattan, they started playing with #UKnowUrFromNewYorkWhen. “We started playing ham,” Weatherspoon told me when we spoke on the phone in June. As the two women laughed and joked, 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 4.25 p.m. exactly, when Weatherspoon logged into Twitter and wrote, “#uknowurblack when you cancel plans when it rains.” The hashtag spread like wildfire. In two hours, 1.2% of all correspondence on Twitter revolved around the hashtag of Weatherspoon, as black users riffed on everything from car rims to tall tees. It was viral success she was looking for and confirmation of rich fabric strung on the platform. Here, in all its melancholy splendor, was Black Twitter.
Over a decade later, Black Twitter has grown into the most dynamic subset of not just Twitter but the social Internet at large. Capable of creating, shaping and remixing popular culture at the speed of light, he remains the incubator of nearly every memes (Crying Jordan, This you?), Hashtag (#If TheyGunnedMeDown, #OscarsSoWhite, #YouOKSis) and the cause of social justice (Me Too, Black Lives Matter) to know. It’s both a short story and an analysis, a call and a response, a judge and a jury: a comedic showcase, a therapy session and a family meal all in one. Black Twitter is a multiverse, both an archive and an all-seeing lens into the future. As Weatherspoon says: “Our experience is universal. Our experience is great. Our experience is relevant.
Although Twitter was launched exactly 15 years ago today, with the aim of changing how and how quickly people communicate online, the ingenious use of the platform by black users can be traced, d ‘in a way, much further in time. In 1970, when the computer revolution was still in its infancy, Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, published an essay entitled “Technology & Ethos”. “How do you communicate with the great masses of blacks? ” He asked. “What is our mind, what is it going to project?” What machines will it produce? What are they going to 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 of “imagine – think – build – energize oneself !!! What follows is the first official chronicle of how fantastically everything turned out. Like all stories, it is incomplete. But it is a start. An outline. Think of it as a kind of recording of darkness – how it moves and develops online, how it creates, how it communicates – told through the eyes of those who have lived it.
Part I: Coming Together, 2008-2012
While early web forums such as BlackVoices, Melanet, and NetNoir collapsed in the mid-2000s, online spaces serving black interests were scarce. BlackPlanet and MySpace failed to fill the void, and Facebook hasn’t quite captured the essence of real-time communication. Users were looking for the next thing.
Kozza Babumba, social manager at Genius: Before 2007, we had never had a conversation about almost anything. As a community, we haven’t all talked about what it was like when we sang the national anthem. Or how it was when OJ was driving in that white Bronco. We just watched it on TV.