Where will Black women gather in the post-Twitter era?
Elon Musk’s potential takeover has Black women thinking about more welcoming spaces
When Elon Musk announced in April that he intended to buy Twitter and pledged to protect “free speech” on the platform, many Black women feared it would exacerbate the harassment they already face daily. A week later when Twitter accepted Musk’s offer and people began deleting their accounts en masse, I decided to take a wait-and-see approach. I needed to witness the platform officially under Musk’s reign before I was willing to give it up.
As a Black woman writer living in Kentucky, my career is possible because of social media. I made my early connections in the industry through Facebook groups for female writers. I receive new opportunities each time a piece I write goes viral on Twitter. And I’m pretty sure the hundreds of Instagram selfies I’ve posted have something to do with that time I was invited to be a judge for a cooking competition show. And on at least one occasion a man has messaged me on LinkedIn with an actual job offer. But this isn’t to say that, like many writers, I’m looking forward to the day I can delete my accounts instead of staying out of fear that my career will stagnate if I don’t maintain a social media presence. Doomscrolling is draining, for sure, but so are the consistent reminders that y’all really, really, really, really hate Black women.
Whatever Musk’s plans for Twitter, maybe it’s just time for something new? I’ve remained very online through the fall of AOL, LiveJournal, Myspace and other platforms because I’ve been drawn to connecting with people, turning to the internet for kindred spirits at times when there were few to be found in my offline life. And that desire has remained active decades after I created my first account on AOL Instant Messenger.
When #BlackTwitter disbands for good, where will Black women gather virtually? And will that space be any better than the ones that came before it? I spoke with a founder who’s trying to answer these questions and other Black women about when they first fell in love with the internet, how social media has broken their hearts, and the spaces they find themselves turning to now.
In her book, Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be, Nichole Perkins has an essay dedicated to her time on the Okayplayer message boards in the early 2000s. She initially joined for a guy — who was already dating someone else. “Getting on the board was our way of talking to be secretive,” she said.
But she quickly came to enjoy Okayplayer for other reasons. Perkins had used AOL chat rooms but didn’t like how conversations whizzed past. She didn’t feel like she could get to know the people in the rooms, so there was a lack of trust. On Okayplayer, the pace was slower and the boards included names and photos. “It was really easy to be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be visiting D.C., what should I do?’ and have it all concentrated in this one post as opposed to trying to go back and scroll and look through the chat rooms,” she said.
For Perkins, the internet was about forming a connection to people and places beyond what might be learned from the outdated encyclopedia on the family bookshelf. “They were written by white people looking at the world from a very particular kind of view. And so, when I first got on the internet, I was connecting to other people of color in these different places.” This shifted her perspective on places she’d yet to travel, for example. “They gave me a different way of looking at Paris that wasn’t just, ‘We’re gonna go over here and kiss at the Eiffel Tower,’ ” she said. “It was, ‘Oh, yeah, but they treat African immigrants really poorly here.’ … It’s not just baguettes.”
When her Okayplayer community began to drift over to Twitter, Perkins followed suit. But the platform, where Perkins has more than 34,000 followers, didn’t serve her in the same way. “There are so many more eyes on me on Twitter, strangers, people who purposely misconstrue what I’m saying, or don’t want to look for context,” she said. Perkins is also frustrated that time on Twitter and Instagram that could be spent engaging with others is instead used for blocking bots.
She pointed out that some users’ entire presence on Twitter is devoted to diminishing Black women. After the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, there were calls for actor Quinta Brunson to address the issue on Abbott Elementary, her sitcom about a Black elementary school in Philadelphia: “ ‘Can you please do a school shooting episode and traumatize these Black and brown kids on your show?’ People need Black women in order to get off their heartaches, in order to make the culture move, in order to survive on social media,” she said.
Angela Nissel, the original architect of the Okayplayer message boards and currently a writer and executive producer on Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia, said what allowed Black women to be less guarded on Okayplayer than Twitter was that there was more built-in accountability because many of the users became friends offline, even going to get their nails or hair done together. “In order to have a community that feels safe, you have to have that connection with people,” she said.
And because Okayplayer is the website for The Roots, there was a common baseline as fans of their music that made people open to listening to each other. Nissel recalled a time when men and women were at odds over singer Jennifer Lopez. “J. Lo was hot because she had a big butt. I remember all the women on Okayplayer were like, ‘Wait, we had big butts first.’ … Anyway, I just remember some of the guys on there posting like, ‘Damn, I never thought about it. How offensive am I being to the women on this site?’ ”
Nissel doesn’t spend much time on Twitter. She believes it’s too easy for Black women’s ideas and thoughts to be exploited by others. “If someone with a bunch of more followers than you tweets something, in your words, no one will ever know it was you first,” she said. “So, I feel like as humans, we need our own spaces. And Twitter definitely is not our own space. That is a space for people that have more access than us to take what we’ve done.”
Instead, Nissel does her digital socializing in Facebook groups, group texts and places where she can be anonymous, such as Reddit groups for Black women. “Since so many of us live in this virtual space right now, it needs to be like our house,” she said. “We need to know where things are, we need to know the rules: No shoes on. And with Twitter, and these other places, it’s somebody else’s rules, and we’re always bending to fit into them.”
Minda Harts designed The Memo as a community that doesn’t require Black women to bend to fit in. The author of multiple books about Black women in the workplace, including one also named The Memo, has grown the digital site to 60,000 users. When I first met Harts several years ago, the community was active in the Slack chat service, but it now mostly operates via newsletter and Twitter. Harts said they’ve recently pivoted to be more of a resource hub as people begin to seek out opportunities to connect in person.
To keep conflict to a minimum, Harts had moderators in the Slack community while also making it clear they’d gathered specifically to discuss workplace issues. “We’re not talking about [The Real] Housewives. … Not to say that you can’t have those conversations, but I think when you start going into other spaces, it allows for conflicting conversations,” she said. “But because we’re talking about salary negotiation, we’re talking about managing, some of those career contexts, there wasn’t room for the conflict.”
This is not how Twitter operates, as Harts has experienced firsthand. She’s had to bounce back from negative Twitter interactions. “I’m not going to let these people take me out. And that’s what I think sometimes these social platforms can do is silence Black women who are doing good,” she said. “And once I got out of my feelings, I realized that these are the things that come with being a quote-unquote public figure and putting your stuff out there for public consumption.”
Ultimately, she’s not too concerned by Musk’s intended takeover. “I do believe that just like anything, that we do move culture and we shift it, and we will find another space where we know that we can do our best work and build community. We’ve never needed permission to build these spaces.”
When Moya Bailey was in the sixth grade in the 1990s, she asked her parents for the internet for Christmas. The author of Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance still remembers the sound of the modem starting up, using Prodigy, then AOL, and how it felt to connect with others beyond her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. But even as a girl, it was evident to her how the internet could be used for ill.
Lately, she’s been thinking about the ripple effect that being online has offline. “The global digital supply chain is something I’m really interested in. There’s Black girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are mining the minerals that power digital devices. There are workers in Foxconn in Sichuan, China, who are doing the labor of building our smartphones and Apple products. And then, of course, in the U.S. we have all of the data centers that store Amazon Web Services or Google servers, and all of those things are cooled by local water supplies in rural America.”
Bailey wants to play a part in facilitating conversations in these communities about how exploitation and extraction affect them and the role her field plays. “As somebody who studies digital media, I really want to help make other scholars aware that part of our work is contingent on this exploitation,” she said. “What do we owe these communities in terms of our work to start to shift that?”
She also connected the dots between the behavior of academics and the media and people moving to monetize their social media presence. “I think the idea of monetizing came from the fact that a lot of journalists and academics, and other people, were able to see content and extract it and divorce it from the people who actually created it. So, the logical response was, ‘Well, that’s not fair for BuzzFeed to get paid off of this listicle that has all of these free tweets that women of color created from their own interests,’ ” Bailey said. “It has fundamentally changed how people interact with these platforms, and the expectation is that if I’m putting something out there, then I should be paid for it.”
This isn’t to say Bailey doesn’t miss aspects of the early internet. “One of the benefits of Twitter and Tumblr, and also those early blogging days, was that people had the opportunity to actually engage in conversation. And there was an understanding that we were talking with each other, not at each other,” she said. On her book tour, in a conversation with Mariame Kaba, who advocates for the abolition of the prison industrial complex and the end of violence, Bailey shared that Kaba dropped this gem: “We’ve moved from having conversations with peers to having conversations with followers. The idea of influencer and follower culture creates a very extractive relationship. And so, there’s something really powerful about not being on display and having conversations that are actually with a community of people who are peers, as opposed to that influencer-follower dynamic that is automatically out of balance.”
This has driven Bailey and many other Black women to seek out smaller, more communal spaces. The new app, Somewhere Good, might just be the place they’ve been searching for. The same week in April that Twitter accepted Musk’s offer, an email from founder Naj Austin hit my inbox inviting me to download the app. It took me back to my own early days on the internet, a fun, freer time when I would make endless tweaks to my Myspace page and pick up bits of the web programming language known as HTML to customize my collection of Angelfire and GeoCities websites. Each day on Somewhere Good, four different conversation starters drop sorted into four areas referred to as “Worlds” – Artists Rituals, Communal Care, Radical Library and Deep Discourse. Users record their responses to the questions of their choosing. Other users can respond to the audio posts or record their own.
There’s a “Play All” button at the top of the screen and I found myself peering out the window, brushing my teeth and pacing around my room as I listened. I noticed that users were more supportive of each other than you might witness in other parts of the internet. They were gentle and asked engaging follow-up questions. When I shared this observation with Austin, she essentially responded that this was because Somewhere Good is a queer space. “My queerness, the queerness of the app is just an embedded part of what it is. And I think it’s in those affirmations you hear, it’s in all the way that people talk to one another,” she said. “I think that is what a queer space is. It tends to be kinder, more open, more transparent, more curious, and not from a place of wanting to take one down.
“Especially from the lens of queerness, blended new families are something that we are accustomed to. When you talk about Blackness in America, family is who you decide it to be, not necessarily always blood-related. And when we talk about white people and the platforms that they tend to create that are meant for social, it is always designed around who you already know and who they know, so that, ‘We can keep it insular. So that we can’t let in all those other people.’ ”
She pointed out how Facebook started as a college group and then expanded to people who weren’t in college. “And, yes, it opened up. But I think trying to build a new technology around your contact book is so myopic.”
I asked Austin if it is even possible to make “somewhere good” online for Black women. She conceded, based on her own experience, that “Being a Black, queer woman online is not great.”
“When we were thinking about what the product was, that was a core tenet, ‘How are we actually adding value back to a person’s life?’ And when you’re talking about Black people, specifically, so much of being online is a reminder of atrocities,” she said. But she also believes that’s not how it has to be. There’s no doomscrolling on Somewhere Good.
But they don’t have any false notions that the design choices they’ve made and the community they’re attempting to cultivate will lead to utopia. Unlike platforms that fall back on a “freedom of speech” argument when conflict arises (Racism? Anti-trans content? Misinformation? Here?! How?!), Somewhere Good’s ethos is centered on not harming the community it’s attempting to serve. This means offering conflict mediation along with moderation.
As evidence that many platforms aren’t invested in addressing conflict, Austin noticed a frequent user complaint that sites have multiple ways to connect when they need to get paid but are harder to reach when someone has been harmed.
The community building doesn’t stop online with Somewhere Good. They opened a physical space in Brooklyn, New York, in late June. Anyone with the app is welcome, at no cost, to attend events. Being familiar with someone from the app works as an icebreaker for in-person connection.
The long-term vision for the app is to serve as an archive, which is much needed in Black communities where archives are often lost due to a lack of resources. “Thinking about what context and nuance looks like when knowledge is being shared through the lens of identity, centering people who are non-white, I think is compelling,” Austin said. She gives the example of a meatloaf recipe and the richness that is added when hearing someone tell you how their family prepares it compared to what Austin describes as a “flat search” on Google.
Already, I’m dreaming of finally cataloging my mother’s recipes since she refuses to write them down. How my friends know me by my laugh and how I’m often told that there’s just something about a Black woman’s laugh — you can hear our soul in it. And I’m dreaming about the sound of our laughter living on long after us somewhere good.