Twitter? Spill? Bluesky? Threads? Is there a safe space for Black folks online?
We need to feel welcome and safe no matter where we end up
Will there ever be a safe social media platform for Black people? That was the question I asked three years ago when I wrote about the history of Black social media and the last few weeks of upheaval in social media have brought that question back to the fore.
Twitter owner Elon Musk’s self-inflicted debacles over the last few months have finally started a Great Migration from the app that has dominated Black social media discourse for a decade.
But what’s next? Is there a replacement for Twitter, which recently added a new “X” logo to replace its familiar blue bird, that can be the safe space Black users have longed for? After a week of testing emerging apps such as Bluesky Social, the Black-owned Spill, and Meta’s Threads platform, I can see a new world emerging. Yet some of the same questions remain.
It didn’t take a soothsayer to see the problems at Twitter coming as soon as Musk completed his purchase of the company in October 2022. Musk had a history of catering to the same type of conspiracy theorists and anti-Black trolls that had tormented so many people on the site. Since his takeover, hate speech directed at Black users has skyrocketed. He’s made fun of pronoun preferences and welcomed back previously-suspended users such as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. Twitter, which had always been problematic for those who loudly advocated for Black folks in any meaningful way immediately felt more hostile when Musk took over.
And then there were the user interface issues: the useless “For You” section; Twitter Circles, previously a safe space for people to limit who sees their tweets, had content become public; charging to be verified and prioritizing tweets from people who pay the monthly fee. And in early July, Musk announced a “rate limit” for how many tweets people can read in a day. The result was hours when people couldn’t load new tweets.
This was the nudge that pushed many Black users to find something else. I was among them, looking for new land to plant my takes, news and camaraderie. Luckily, there were sites waiting for this moment.
The first site I went to was Bluesky. Still in invite-only beta mode, the site is a project of Twitter’s former CEO Jack Dorsey. The interface is much like an early iteration of Twitter – barebones tweets and interactions. There’s also a “Discover” tab where you can see posts from people you don’t follow. But because of the invite-only nature of the site, it was hard to meet friends from other platforms.
Spill was created by Alphonzo “Phonz” Terrell and DeVaris Brown, two former Twitter employees. It’s impossible to talk about Spill without saying exactly what it is: a social media platform for Black folks. Even the language used in its functionality is a nod to Black vernacular, with most of it revolving around “spilling” and “sipping” tea.
Like Bluesky, Spill is invite-only. But walking into Spill felt welcoming. The posts, which are limited to 90 characters, usually overlaying a piece of visual media, were mostly celebratory early on: Black users rejoicing in a space that felt built for us while also making fun of Musk for shooing off Twitter’s Black users, who are the lifeline of his app. Spill even had its first “viral” moment when users banded together to shame controversial gossip site The Shade Room off the platform.
Going to Spill feels like a throwback to the hip-hop and alternative music site Okayplayer or blog message board days where you laugh and meet strangers (because, like, Bluesky, you start with zero followers and are encouraged to follow anyone you come across). The Spill interface is a little cluttered for my taste, and it’s not always immediately clear who is posting what. It may seem too noisy for someone not well-versed in social media. As the developers have reiterated, though, this is all early in development.
The problem for Spill is that it may not have much time to keep everyone’s attention. Because Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta recently launched its direct Twitter competitor (and copycat) called Threads. The layout is pretty much like Twitter, with buttons for reposting, quoting and even sharing your posts on rival Twitter. Threads has an advantage over all other new networks because it allows users to integrate their followers from Instagram automatically. It doesn’t feel like starting over on another site.
The results have been staggering. Threads has been downloaded more than 150 million times, making it the fastest-growing app. Musk has responded by going into what can only be described as a panic. He’s threatened to sue Zuckerberg. And this is just the early launch version. It’s safe to assume we’ll get some sort of chronological timeline, direct messaging and other logical changes. Threads is going to be a juggernaut.
Threads is also threatening to eclipse the excitement Black folks had for Spill. But that only spells doom for Spill if it’s trying to replace Twitter or fight off Zuckerberg. But why does Spill have to accomplish that? Why does it have to be the new internet Walmart?
Black folks have been missing the spaces that feel uniquely Black and safe. And an uberpopular Threads could be a boon for Spill. Because Spill was always going to run into the problem that all social media faces: what happens when the trolls and racists come on board? If many of them are drawn to Threads, then Spill can stay as a niche site dedicated to the Black users who helped it become popular in the first place. Spill can thrive as a place used in addition to the bigger platforms, a let-out for Black users to be themselves and know they don’t have to worry about the various -isms we face daily on the internet. Spill can be a place for Black folks to exhale.
It’s also contingent on how much user fatigue exists about these new spaces. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve added three new social media apps to my phone and toggling between them is a chore. Some will fall by the wayside.
Which brings me back to Twitter.
While I tweet much less than I did before Musk, much of my community is still there. Friends, followers and people I’ve known for more than a decade are on that app. Shutting Twitter down to go to another app will mean I lose touch with more than a few of them. Also, Twitter is still a space for getting news. For instance, it was difficult to follow the NBA trade news live without it.
And while I will rejoice in Musk’s humbling, it’s not as if Threads is run by a group of altruistic community members. Zuckerberg has allowed Facebook to propagate some of the same anti-Black rhetoric as Twitter, even if he isn’t posting support for the worst people. Ultimately, these are two billionaires having a measuring contest where neither one loses because they’ll each have enough money to move on to some other vanity project. I don’t have any brand loyalty to either man’s venue or any rooting interest in seeing one of them defeat the other.
While all the new sites feel overwhelming now, I’ll eventually work myself into a routine. You will too. Right now, Bluesky feels like it’ll fall by the wayside. I’ll still tweet. I’ll see if Threads grows on me enough to replace it. And I imagine I’ll stay on Spill, letting loose, and keeping my follower count low.
But all of this depends on how long these places feel as safe as possible. Twitter has kowtowed to anti-Blackness, especially over the past year or so. Suppose these other sites follow suit, looking towards the overall download counts regardless of what kind of sentiments they support. In that case, I — and many Black users — will still be searching for a space that allows us to be as free from abuse as possible. What all of these sites need to realize is a lesson that Musk is learning the hard way: Take Black users, who are the engine and influencers of your site, for granted, and you’ll end up on the verge of disaster. So treat us accordingly.