'Black Twitter: A People's History' tells how humor and hashtags fostered a subculture

When Hulu announced that it would be releasing a docuseries about Black Twitter, the streamer got an immediate earful from … Black Twitter. Users complained of appropriation, of big media big-footing, of The Man swooping in to claim a piece of a sacred subculture. As one person posted on the platform, “The Black Twitter response to the Black Twitter doc is so very #BlackTwitter.”

The makers 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 Thursday, expected nothing less.

“There’s a fear of how we’re going to be represented in Hollywood,” said executive producer and director Prentice Penny, alongside executive producer and showrunner Joie Jacoby and producer Jason Parham at SXSW. “There’s a fear about who’s telling this story. It’s right to be skeptical because Hollywood sometimes has not been responsible about these things.”

“It’s because they love it as much as we love it,” Jacoby said. “And they want to make sure that we’re doing it right. It’s a big responsibility.”

Based on an oral history written by Parham and published in Wired magazine in 2021, “Black Twitter” covers a range of topics, some serious (Black Lives Matter, Trayvon Martin, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol), some less so (the TV drama “Scandal,” crying Michael Jordan memes, R&B beefs). But its primary subject is how Black people have used the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, now X, as a means of communal expression, a way to laugh, cry, vent and shrug at the absurdities of everyday life in the 21st century. It also looks at how the platform has changed since Elon Musk purchased 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, no secret handshake.

“White folks 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 drive social justice (and show off some formidable Photoshop skills). It’s the land of a thousand hashtags, from #OscarsSoWhite to #Thanksgivingclapback to #BlackGirlsAreMagic. It helped focus attention on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It’s a seedbed for inside jokes that get blasted out into the open.

Parham traces the rise 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,” he said. “The recession is happening. We don’t have a lot of agency in the population, and we aren’t getting jobs. We just want to connect online. Twitter was the place to do that. It felt like one giant group chat.”

As Parham wrote in his oral history, “It is both news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury — a comedy showcase, a 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 Jacoby puts it, “It’s just Twitter for us.”

“Black Twitter’ whisks the viewer through roughly 15 years of Black Twitter highlights, with commentators including comedian Baratunde Thurston, author and cultural critic Roxane Gay, and journalist Wesley Lowery, who offer analysis and personal recollection. The series is often hilarious, especially when it dives into some of Black Twitter’s more fruitful hashtags, like #Thanksgivingclapback (“Grandma: ‘This place is a mess.’ Me: ‘Well so is that wig.’”). We also see the very first #OscarsSoWhite post, from 2015, courtesy of April Reign: “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign is one of many instances when Black Twitter missives led to 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 often just fun, like regular Twitter with extra spice. And sometimes it reaches epic scope, as when a stripper named Zola dropped a 148-tweet thread in 2015 about her misadventures with a fellow stripper in Florida. That one became the 2020 movie “Zola.”

The series highlights how Black Twitter users have tapped into the platform’s capacity for improvisation, the same quality that fuels the blues, jazz and stand-up comedians from Redd Foxx to Richard Pryor to Kevin Hart.

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

“Black Twitter” also looks at the Amiri Baraka 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 one could argue that Black Twitter was created by Black users.

In the series, Thurston brings it all down to earth a little. “Black people are loud as hell,’ he says. “We’ll turn anything into an instrument of our expression, and Twitter is no exception.”

Technically speaking, there is no more Black Twitter — because there is no more Twitter. Musk changed the platform’s name to X in 2023, even if most still call it by its original name. Musk also reinstated many users who had been suspended for hate speech and spreading falsehoods. As the series explains, racist invective has become more common under the platform’s new stewardship. (I deleted my account last year, worn out by the bots and trolls). The party might not be over, but it feels a lot meaner.

Like other social media habitues, Black Twitter users look forward to whatever comes next — and to making it more vital in every way.

“Twitter was never for us in the first place, but we still made our own space,” Parham said. “For those of us who want to stay on the platform, I think we’ll figure out a way to commune and show up for each other. It’s not going to look like what it used to look like, but it’ll look like something different, and it’ll look like something for us.”

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