These days, Twitter feels like a nightclub that’s just past its prime. It’s the sort of spot that used to be hot, but its best days are behind it. One of the primary reasons is that there’s no accountability. Conversations on Twitter can become so toxic so fast because people can sign on as whomever they want and say whatever they want. I love freedom, but absolute freedom in a community means some users will take it as an invitation to be their worst selves, poisoning the atmosphere for everyone.
The people who govern Twitter provide us with no practical policing mechanism, they only act when someone complains. Just this week, writer Julia Ioffe was getting Nazi flags tweeted at her. She complained privately to no avail and then tweeted, “Guy tweeting Nazi flags at me, says @twitter, is not in violation of Twitter policy.” That’s outrageous. And apparently someone at Twitter HQ agrees because after Ioffe put out that tweet, the offending accounts were suspended. But why didn’t they stop it before it got that far? Remember, this is not a First Amendment issue. Twitter is a private company, they can establish rules of conduct that combat hate speech.
Instead, the overabundance of racist, sexist, and anti-semitic trolls are destroying the Twitter experience for many people. The New York Times article “Why I Left Twitter” pointed out the existence of all sorts of handles that are overtly anti-semitic and pro-Hitler. Last week, I was accosted by someone called @fuckblacklives. Why should I have to see that? Why should anyone have to see that? I think every woman who’s active on Twitter can tell you about the horde of insane things that are sent to them. It’s not helping Twitter’s image or user experience to be tacitly supportive of racists, misogynists, and anti-semites who attack people in public. Putting aside the obvious moral implications, these problems are not good for the business of Twitter, which is beginning to really struggle.
That said, I still derive great joy from Black Twitter. Like an amazing virtual barbershop, you can talk politics with Marc Lamont Hill and Joy Reid and Netta Briellerielle, then basketball with JA Adande and Bomani Jones, then culture with Questlove andJamilah Lemieux and Reggie Hudlin and Soledad O’Brien, and on and on.
I feed off of Black Twitter’s bravado, strength, and wit. I love the way the collective community has an ego that emanates from each user and becomes an ultimate badass party. Black Twitter also gives me a reason to watch stuff like Scandal and the BET Awards in real time. Even when Twitter as a whole seems to be in its twilight, Black Twitter still feels homey and entertaining, and it can still be a space for protest when needed.
Protest hashtags like #iftheygunmedown and #ByeAnita and #BeingABlackGirlIsLithave given me life. And the news posted on Black Twitter continues to inform me about tragic incidents before mainstream media begins covering them. The experience of moving through my network of Black Twitter followers can become an emotional journey, from the insider jokes to the stories of death to the moments when someone jumps in with a comment that helps me destroy a racist like a friend jumping in to help you win a fight.
Though we often think about Twitter as one primary network, academics describe Twitter as a series of virtual neighborhoods. And according to University of North Texas professor Meredith Clark, who wrote a dissertation on Black Twitter titled “To Tweet Our Own Cause: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Online Phenomenon ‘Black Twitter,'” there are multiple Black Twitters within that broader network that reflect the diverse array of black people in America. These sub-neighborhoods of Black Twitter surely overlap and intersect, but often they function separately. They also at times come together as a sort of meta-network, coalescing around a certain hot button subject like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen or #AskRKelly.
When you’re in your own neighborhood of like-minded folks and Twitter friends and perhaps offline friends, you’re among family. But when you intersect with someone from another hood, a nasty sort of bloodsport can emerge. Next thing you know, you’re getting attacked by a horde of people more virulently racist or sexist or hateful than any you’ve ever encountered in real life.
It may not be a physical attack, but having that sort of venom spewed into your day can have an impact that’s not always easy to shake. Professor Clark says, “It is a comfort to me to know I can log on and my people are gonna be there and we’re gonna be talking about the issues that concern us whether it’s street harassment or a miscarriage of justice or the everyday things we have to deal with that have to do with outright racism, prejudice, and bigotry. Having the kind of network and safety net there is of use to me. It’s comforting to me, but the fun is not there as much anymore.”
It’s a choice to be black (or gay or female, etc.) on Twitter. You may say I’m just being myself and that may be, but as Professor Clark reminds us—you had the option to be someone else. We are free to construct our online identity however we wish. On Twitter, that’s done with the picture you choose, the people you talk to, the words you use, the subjects you discuss, and more. These are highly politicized choices in a vitriolic environment. Being black on Twitter makes you a target for abuse, just as being a woman or being gay or being Jewish does. Part of why I love Black Twitter is because the folks who make up Black Twitter are making an affirmative choice to be boldly Black in spite of the negativity it attracts. I often find myself admiring the elegant and witty ways some in Black Twitter repel trolls.
But there are days when I don’t want to fight. I want my social media to be fun and relaxing. That’s why I’m increasingly spending less time on Twitter and more on Snapchat, which recently passed Twitter in daily active users.
While Twitter has become a space where I feel I always have to be prepared for verbal combat, Snapchat is just fun. It doesn’t have a mechanism to give easy feedback about each piece of content. Without that constant judgement, it’s easier to just relax and be yourself. When I post a silly snap, zero strangers call me a gorilla idiot. That contributes to a freedom of expression on Snap that no longer exists on Twitter.
Perhaps because of that freedom, there’s a lot of people creating interesting snaps and stories—and there’s a lot more people with innate filmmaking talent than I ever suspected. Snapchat makes your phone into a customizable TV network and there’s so much interesting content being produced by black users, I feel like I’m watching the ultimate BET as filtered through the selfie generation.
I’ll watch anything from Solange (nappyandsnappy) who’s an artiste with her snaps, Baratunde (snapatunde) who’s consistently funny, and DJ Khaled (djkhaled305) who’s inspirational. Then there’s Gabrielle Union (gabunionwade) and D-Wade (mrwade82) who are aspirational and a really fun couple. There’s Rick Ross (FerrariFatboy), who’s always flossing, and Kevin Hart (kevinhart4real), who’s hysterical. Serena Williams (serenaunmatched) loves to be silly, Usher’s (howusnap) snaps are smooth, and Michelle Obama (FLOTUS) just joined this week which is a cultural breakthrough for Snapchat even though the president is covered on Snap via The White House’s feed (the White House).
I’m sure there are many more to discover. When I’m moving through those feeds it feels like there’s a community unspooling before me. I’m able to jump in and out of the lives of these cool Black people, and in that way snapchat feels like a community—my friends who let me peek in on their lives. It’s starting to feel like there’s a Black Snapchat community brewing. This could never be what Black Twitter is because of the architecture of Snap. It’s not built to create the same kind of dialogue. But when I’m alone with Snap and able to take little trips outside of my life into the lives of people I like, it really feels special. It’s a community that’s much more pleasant and affirming than what Twitter has become.
Essay originally appeared in Vice on June 22, 2016.