‘Black Twitter’ Provided a Clickbait Goldmine. It’s Time for the Media to Reexamine That.

black twitter

In the early 2010s, the social media platform then-known as Twitter had robust adoption fascination from two large demographics — journalists and Black people. 

For many Black users, Twitter was ideal for intracommunity styles of dialogue — rapidfire, brief interactions that were easy to search, engage with and respond to, serving as a digital water cooler and barbershop. As the proliferation of the app expanded within Black communities, it began to become a point of curiosity within mainstream media — obscure jokes, live watchalongs and documented racial justice issues would become trending topics that took over people’s timelines. Before long, the subject of “Black Twitter” was an oft-used refrain for amorphous discussions of Black behavior within a digital community — with mixed results that still linger.

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Rachelle Hampton, reporter and host of digital culture podcast ICYMI at Slate, notes that things began to go wrong when Twitter became the primary source of interaction for many media writers who did not navigate Black circles in their personal lives. “Most white people have not had access to unfiltered conversation. Very few white people are allowed in those spaces in general,” Hampton said. “Black Twitter kind of became this open-air stadium where anybody — whether they knew the Black people talking or knew Black people in real life or not — could witness the conversations that have always been happening in more private spaces.” 

With uncensored access came significant pitfalls. The fascination among many journalists was largely more spectacle than participatory, leading to an emerging infrastructure of reporting on digital culture that was often misguided or failed to take in the potential impact of establishing a record of presumptions about human perspectives. “Black Twitter” became a substitute for engaging with Black people, with a rapidly increasing trend of embedding and linking tweets for narrative confirmation — courtesy of the app’s liberal terms and conditions — replacing the tried-and-true tactic of engaging a source for information and insight.

“Twitter, you had what —140 characters, maybe 280 if you were lucky,” said Hampton. “That’s just not how long a comment would be from someone if you actually ask them about it.” 

In the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover and renaming of Twitter as “X,” the platform has been undergoing a slow but certain death by attrition, with the once-robust space for internet dialogue becoming flooded with spam bots, distracting advertisements, poorly curated algorithms and general obstructions to ease of use. As internet culture expands to other applications and ecosystems, it is critical to examine the missteps that emerged from media using tweets as indicative of a universal Black perspective. Here’s what the media can do better.

Go out and talk to real people

The lackadaisical approach to early internet journalism led to articles that were almost entirely composed of tweets as a reflection of general public sentiment, without proper engagement and discussions with the named parties. Common templates such as BuzzFeed listicles became viewed with scorn within Black and other marginalized communities for exploiting users for clicks through headlines such as “Hilarious Black Twitter Tweets,” and would veer into active harm with content such as the heavily maligned video “27 Questions Black People Have For Black People.

”Maybe Twitter users would have said “something different or word it differently if they knew this was going to go from being seen by, let’s say, 50,000 of their closest friends on Twitter to the millions of people that look at BuzzFeed or The New York Times,” said Hampton.

These common pitfalls could be minimized by adhering to the core principles of reporting — namely, engaging with subjects for context and background. Stories cannot be considered reported if the only interactions with the subject of the story is obtained from social media posts; a balance should be struck with public comments and direct interviews with affected people.

For example, it’s a valid news story when a legislator tweets out something defamatory toward Black people, their constituents, but reporters should not exclusively use tweet reactions to flesh out the rest of the story. They must speak to the people impacted by those tweets and others who can put the legislator’s words and actions into a greater context.   

Study histories and add context

Overall, there have been numerous advantages to using social media as a tool to create momentum for and attention to critical Black issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations on appropriation and the far-reaching impact of gentrification. As CEO and founder of the communications site Politics with Purpose, Domonique James acknowledges that social media has been one of the few reliable ways Black voices, issues and causes have earned attention when they’ve been otherwise ignored in mainstream conversation. 

Over the years, however, this tactic has come with pitfalls. “The danger is when well-intentioned but ill-informed journalists sensationalize Black stories without understanding the cultural nuance, historical context and intersectional lens often required to do those stories justice,” James said. 

Left unattended, an innocuous but poorly rendered analysis can quickly be leveraged in a destructive cycle that uses a shoddy frame to incite further marginalization and harm. Examples include the degradation of terms such as “woke” and “canceled” — phrases that had lighthearted, context-specific interpretations in the Black community, yet over the years have metastasized into quasi-cogent ideologies within conservative “culture wars.” These words have sometimes been fully removed from their original context yet are still leveraged as a means to pathologize Black and queer behavior.

It left the burden on Black journalists to ensure that viral moments happening within the Black digital space were offered the full humanity and attention they deserved. “A lot of Black and brown journalists burned out from the stress of having to write Black folk into being for unconvinced and unappreciative white liberal audiences who lived for a diet of Black trauma but were unwilling to … do something about it,” said André Brock, professor of Black digital studies at Georgia Tech.

It is incumbent upon reporters to research and glean the greater themes and context that emerge from stories that are initiated from digital events. What makes niche reporting interesting is being able to connect it to a larger dynamic. Doing so may take work but prevents information shedding that misrepresents internet phenomena as seemingly emerging from nowhere. 

“Doing internet culture coverage without putting it within a historical framework is a huge injustice, and it makes things that happen on the internet seem not connected to each other,” Hampton said. “The best form of internet culture writing is a blend of criticism and reporting, because you have to understand what came before to understand what’s going to come after, or even why this thing that is happening now matters.” 

Be careful and take the time needed to report

For Hampton, it is paramount to approach every topic with care and a delicate lens. “I want to make sure that people who are actually telling me the stories seem like they’re in the best position to tell me the story,” she said. “If they’re not, then maybe this is something that can wait. Maybe this is something that’s better to do a retrospective on than something to be on the ground with — because, with most internet journalism, you’re not actually there as it’s happening.” 

This is the approach she took to her deeply researched feature on the Black feminist organizers behind #YourSlipisShowing, who were outing Twitter trolls before the Gamergate debacle — a story she says took her a year to work and report on. Hampton had been following the people who started the Twitter hashtag and had seen their frustrations with media’s blind spots and the narrative around Gamergate’s formation. “When I’m thinking about stories like that, I really want to balance the people who are actually experiencing it — being able to think about how it’s affecting your life, how it’s affecting the way you think about the world is something that I feel like only comes with hindsight, which is why I was glad to do it multiple years after it happened,” she said.

Ethical standards that apply in all other aspects of reporting also apply to a healthy digital beat. A reporter’s relationship with any social media platform should not be extractive, but symbiotic. The communities they engage with, Black or otherwise, should feel respected and valued.

Digital culture reporting is inherently participatory; it requires the time to build an understanding of the greater themes involved in a story as well as a critical, curious eye to help break a story out of the rote mold of mere transcription of cybermoments. Most importantly within the racial sphere, it requires approaching and viewing Black participants as full humans and not reducing them to internet avatars containing quick bytes of information to extract and repurpose.