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Review: ‘Black Twitter’ Looks at Who Gave the Platform Its Voice

Review: ‘Black Twitter’ Looks at Who Gave the Platform Its Voice

Hashtagging was one way, “Black Twitter” argues, that Black users shaped Twitter’s vernacular. Another was through memes, which allowed a layered visual vocabulary for mood, irony, emotion and attitude. Black people, the documentary argues, were pioneers of memes-as-language and often the faces of it: Michael Jackson munching popcorn (to convey excited spectatorship), James Harden eye-rolling away from an interviewer (wry dismissal), Donald Glover walking into a burning room (surprised horror) and of course, the Pietà of memes, Crying Jordan.

Like any social platform, Twitter is people; its history is human history. So “Black Twitter” doubles as a social history of America from the beginning of the Obama era to the aftermath (and resumption?) of the Trump era, an arc of hope to disillusionment to acrimony. It begins nostalgically, with the election of the first Black president (who was also an early Twitter adopter) and memories of over-the-top online beefs and “Scandal” watch parties.

With the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Black Twitter served as a crowdsourced information network and protest forum. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown invited Black users to post pairs of photos of themselves, grimly satirizing the tendency of media outlets to choose the most menacing images of Black people shot by the police.

The rest of “Black Twitter” is (recent) history: the element of racial backlash around Donald J. Trump’s election; Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests; the pandemic; BBQ Becky and Permit Patty and the Jan. 6 attackers at the Capitol. Eventually, Elon Musk buys the platform, reinstates banned accounts and presides over a toxic spill of hate speech. (Most recently Musk restored the account of the white supremacist Nick Fuentes.)

Seen hopefully, the story of “Black Twitter” is that of the irrepressibility of a culture’s expression. Seen more gloomily, it’s a reminder of the fine line between a public forum providing a voice for the less powerful and its being used as a cudgel against them.

If there’s an optimistic takeaway from this fast, impressionistic history, it’s that Black Twitter is really a phenomenon that preceded Twitter — as seen in Black users’ earlier embrace of outlets like Myspace — and that it will persist elsewhere if it comes to that. (Already, the documentary says, its energy is in some ways shifting to video platforms like TikTok.)

“Black Twitter: A People’s History” doesn’t have grand predictions about what comes next. But it’s an engagingly specific snapshot of the Twitter era and the social period it overlapped with: a time that was serious even when it was silly, that was fun until it wasn’t.

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