At the end In 2009, during the twilight months of the decade in which the first black man was elected to the U.S. presidency, Ashley Weatherspoon chased virality in 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 tested hashtags on both of their feeds to see what would connect with fans. Mild success came with variations on #UKnowUrBoyfriendsCheatingWhen. Later, while driving around Manhattan, they started playing with #UKnowUrFromNewYorkWhen. “We started hamming it,” 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 exactly 4:25 p.m., when Weatherspoon signed up for Twitter and wrote, “#Uknowurblackwhen you cancel plans when it rains.” The hashtag spread like wildfire. Within two hours, 1.2 percent of all Twitter correspondence revolved around the hashtag of Weatherspoon, while black users riffed about everything from rims to T-shirts. It was the viral hit she was looking for – and a confirmation of the rich fabric strung across the platform. Here, in all its melancholy glory, was black Twitter.
More than a decade later, black Twitter has become the most dynamic subset of not only Twitter but the wider social internet. Capable of creating, shaping and remixing popular culture at the speed of light, it remains the incubator of almost every meme (Crying Jordan, This you?), Hashtag (#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #OscarsSoWhite, #YouOKSis) and the cause of social justice (Me Too), Black Lives Matter which is worth knowing about. These are news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury – a showcase of comedy, therapy and family cooking, all in one. Black Twitter is a multiverse, at the same time 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 today exactly 15 years ago, with the goal of changing how – and how fast – people communicate over the Internet, the ingenious use of the platform by Black users can in some ways be traced much further back in the past. In 1970, when the computer revolution was in its infancy, Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, published an essay entitled “Technology and Ethos.” “How do you communicate with a large mass of Blacks?” he asked. “What is our spirit like, what will it project?” What machines will they produce? What will he achieve? “
Today, for black Twitter users, Barakin is a prophetic machine: voice and community, strength and empowerment. To use his words, it became a space “to imagine – to think – to construct – to energize !!!” The first official record of how everything came together fantastically follows. Like all histories, it is incomplete. But that is the beginning. Outline. Think of it as a kind of record of Blackness – how it moves and progresses online, how it creates, how it communicates – told through the eyes of those who lived it.
Part I: Coming Together, 2008–2012
As early web forums like BlackVoices, Melanet, and NetNoir collapsed in the mid-2000s, online spaces that catered to black interests were scarce. BlackPlanet and MySpace failed to fill the gap and Facebook didn’t quite grasp the essence of real-time communication. Users were looking for the following thing.
Kozza Babumba, Head of Social Services at Genius: Before 2007, we never talked about almost anything. As a community, we didn’t all talk about what it was like when we sang the anthem. Or how it was when OJ rode in that white Bronze. That’s exactly what we saw on television.