While Elon Musk has been celebrating a bump in users and app downloads since he took over Twitter, many longer-term users say they’re seriously considering leaving. Some are even holding mock funerals anticipating the site would break down.
This week, Twitter users even discovered that the company is no longer enforcing its COVID-19 misinformation policy.
But if Twitter did fall apart, what would happen to the distinct spaces there, like what’s commonly referred to as Black Twitter?
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams speaks with Shamika Klassen, an information science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who co-authored a research article about Black Twitter last year. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Shamika Klassen: Black Twitter is an amorpheus community that exists on Twitter like an open secret. It’s not just a hashtag or one particular account, but it’s a multitude of a combination of those things and even more. And the reason why I think Black Twitter is so different from the rest of Twitter is because Black Twitter is anchored specifically in Black oral traditions and Black culture.
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Kimberly Adams: I think a classic example of this was a couple of years ago, when throughout Black Twitter there were all of these strings of letters that made no sense to anyone. And yet, when I looked at them, right away I was like, “I know exactly what this means.” Can you explain what that was and how that kind of embodied Black Twitter?
Klassen: Absolutely. So that’s one of my favorite tweets. The one I remember is from, I think her name was @atkelli_, and this was during April of 2020. So right at the beginning of the pandemic. And it was sort of written like a letter. It said, “Dear Georgia,” and it had the string of letters and you look at it for a second. And if you know, then you were able to realize that it said, “I don’t care what Kansas does, you better state your Black ‘A’ in the ‘MF’ house.” And once you sort of decipher the message, then it’s not only hilarious, because it’s a hilarious message, but it’s like that open secret I was talking about. You have to use your understanding of Black culture, Black experiences to unlock that message. And I’ve actually recently seen on Pinterest, of all places, a poster that used that string of letters but for a different purpose. And I’m like, “Well, of course, here comes the appropriation, here comes a culture vulture’s monetizing something without giving credit to the original creator.” But that post, that tweet, was so representative of the way Black Twitter operates on Twitter.
Adams: Black users have served as trendsetters on many mainstream social media platforms. What has the Black community done for the growth of Twitter over the years?
Klassen: Well, I would certainly start with the way that Black Twitter uses hashtags. You would have someone pick up on a hashtag, quote tweet, and sort of pull the conversation forward with their own responses to the original call. And I think that because of that, it really helped keep the conversation still sort of insular. But it showed Twitter that these were conversations that were very engaged. And that’s the big thing that social media platforms are all about, is engagement, people posting things, creating content, and also people responding to and reacting to that content.
Adams: It’s very interesting. A lot of the conversations about what’s going on at Twitter have talked about people’s concern about losing access to a diversity of ideas and being exposed to new communities and new thoughts. But what you’re talking about here with Black Twitter, you use the word “insular.” And I wonder how the sort of section of Twitter that Black people have created for themselves, how that works in the broader dynamic of what Twitter was?
Klassen: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I feel like the way Black Twitter operated in the early days, when it sort of flew under the radar. And then, as more social justice issues were breaking, news, breaking events happening on Black Twitter and corrections to the traditional news media outlets, their renditions of what happened — as those corrections were becoming more and more prevalent, more and more recognized, then news media started to look to Black Twitter to tell the stories they were telling and to get the news, get the opinions, get the takes that they would then use on their articles. So I think that dynamic shifted over time to where now Black Twitter is the trendsetter of Twitter. It’s sort of the pulse in the heartbeat. It’s where things happen, and sort of the Twitter world is looking on to try and catch up and engage.
One of the things I found in my research is that Black Twitter has all of these benefits, like community building and empowerment, being able to share information and query information. But some of the challenges of Black Twitter include having to deal with racism in the comments as you’re posting things about social justice issues or just living your life. And then someone jumps onto the conversation who’s not a part of the conversation but feel the need to share their opinion anyway. And so these aspects of Black Twitter also cause people who are in Black Twitter to have to engage with folks outside of the community in ways that still ring true to who they are, but also put those people in their place.
Adams: With so many people talking about leaving Twitter or just being on there less, what happens to distinct communities like Black Twitter if the platform continues along the path it’s going?
Klassen: It does make it very tricky for folks who are deciding to stay because they’re dealing now with all of these people who are flocking back to Twitter because of the way it’s being run and because of who’s running it. But I would say overall, the kinds of accounts that are coming back to Twitter are not really conducive to supporting a community like Black Twitter.
Adams: There are so many other Twitters besides Black Twitter. How does what you’ve seen going on with this moment of transition for Twitter and for Black Twitter — how does that inform what you think might be ahead for other communities that have really thrived on the platform? I’m thinking Gay Twitter, Disability Twitter, those kinds of groups.
Klassen: I think in some ways, they’re very similar pros and cons. I’m thinking in particular, for example, of there’s Black Tech Twitter, there’s also Education Twitter, where you have all these people who are in higher ed who want to work in academia. So each of these different corners of Twitter will have to reckon with who stays and who leaves. There was a statistic, I believe it was from Pew Research, [that] said something like 20% of the people on the platform create 80% of the content. So if you’ve got more and more people leaving, then you have more onlookers and more people who are just engaging with a like or maybe a quote tweet, but the people who are really driving the machine of Twitter might be on their way out. So that means that you’re seeing less content, you’re getting less content from people who you’re following, or from people who are on your list, or whatever the case may be. So that happens across all of Twitter, which does touch on each of these smaller communities within Twitter.
Adams: If Black Twitter goes away or diminishes, what does that mean for those communities that really were using it to listen?
Klassen: I think that whole “my best friend’s Black” or “I got a Black neighbor,” all that stuff is nothing compared to being able to see live conversations that are happening in the Black community without having to put that labor on a Black person to inform you. So I think it’s going to be really unfortunate that there’s going to be people who aren’t able to engage in that way. But moving forward, it may even encourage people to build offline relationships with Black people in a way that they might not have before. If their interest in the Black community and Black culture was piqued because of Black Twitter, then it might encourage them to take the next step and start to build those relationships offline and with people in their community, with people in their purview, in their circles. And I think that would be a really amazing thing.
Adams: What do you think the next Black Twitter-like space or platform should or will be like?
Klassen: That’s another thing I’ve talked about in my research. I’ve been very interested in what one Twitter user called “wanting to own the next space we are in instead of rent.” And I think looking to Black programmers and Black developers, Black designers who create digital spaces, to really create a space built from the ground up for Black people. So because it’ll be a new platform, it won’t necessarily be Black Twitter, but it will certainly be Black people online in the digital space. So I think what’s next is certainly going to be different than what’s happened on Twitter. But it will be no less authentic, it will be no less impactful and it will certainly be trendsetting. I know that for sure. But I also think that what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a fragmentation because people will go to different platforms until there’s a coalescence of “OK, this platform is where we’re going to go, this is where it’s at. This is our new gathering place.” And that may not express itself for a bit of time. It might be a couple of months or even a year or more before the dust settles and we’re able to see where people have actually landed.