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May 15, 2023, 2:20 p.m.
Audience & Social

“The world’s largest Black group chat”: Behind the mission to preserve Black Twitter

A number of efforts are underway to document not just the content created on the platform but how Black women used it for communication and community — along with the abuse they received.

This story was originally published by The 19th.

A wild 2015 Twitter thread by Aziah Wells King, better known as Zola, about a trip to Florida wouldn’t have gone viral without the work of Black Twitter. Without that, it wouldn’t have gotten the attention of Rolling Stone, and it wouldn’t have been turned into a critically acclaimed film.

#TheStory, as it became known, is an example of both the creative capacity of Black storytellers on the platform and the way in which the network of collectives known as Black Twitter create culture on- and offline. But when Meredith D. Clark, associate professor at Northeastern University in the school of journalism and department of communication studies, began researching Black Twitter as a doctoral student over a decade ago, only two other people in academia were studying what she called the “dynamic phenomenon.” She hopes her Archiving Black Twitter project, launched in March, ensures future scholars can carry on that work.

Clark is part of Archiving The Black Web, a group of digital archivists seeking to preserve the stories of Black people and extend existing archival practices to the digital sphere. This group and others hope to document not just the content created on the platform but how Black people use it for communication and community. They see an urgency to preserving Black Twitter in a world in which Black history and Black women’s cultural labor are undervalued or unacknowledged — and where the future of Twitter seems unknown. They also want to document the racist and sexist abuse that Black women on the platform received, in part to help people dream up and create a more inclusive way of connecting that prioritizes the needs of the most marginalized.

For Clark, archiving Black Twitter allows for a richer understanding of peoples’ lives both on and off the Internet.

“I want for a student, or someone who is just plainly curious, who wants to dig into these histories and this knowledge 50, 75, 100, hell, even five years from now, to be able to access this and say, there is data, there is proof, there’s already a web of knowledge that’s out there about this,” Clark said.

Clark’s archival project has been in the making since long before Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the platform in October, but his subsequent changes to organizational structure, user experience and algorithmic curation have led many users to worry about the platform’s future — and some to delete their accounts. This potential loss of information has brought issues of archiving to the forefront.

“Black Twitter” isn’t one thing — it’s a term for a collection of networks of Black people on the platform, spreading across the globe. The ease of reaching others helped marginalized people build community and organize — even as it also opened users up to abuse based on race and gender.

This was particularly true for Black women. Many movements stewarded by Black women on Twitter moved into the real world, like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Black women’s cultural labor — movement building, care work, organizing, leadership — has been regularly overlooked, said Zakiya Collier, an archivist and memory worker.

“Names are not included or their perspectives are not prioritized. And so when we look at the cultural record, there are times where it may seem like there were no women involved,” Collier explained. “And we know that to not be the case.”

Preserving Black Twitter is an investment in the future; it allows for a more accurate and rich and complex version of Internet history, Clark said. The ephemeral nature of the Internet means a chunk of Black Internet history has already been lost, Clark said, citing how much of the Black blogosphere is now permanently offline.

Preservation is key across platforms. For example, telling the story of the movement for Black lives would be incomplete without Alicia Garza’s original Facebook post with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. “How could you tell the story about what that moment in history was like, without having that evidence? It would be really difficult to do, it would also be really easy to distort it,” Clark said. “And that’s something that we’re seeing in practice now with other forms of Black creation and Black culture.”

Twitter allows people to come together in a semblance of democracy, said André Brock, associate professor in the department of literature, media and communication at Georgia Tech. It’s not exactly true that anything is public on Twitter — your feed isn’t a real-time firehose of everyone’s posts — but anyone can read tweets from any account as long as it’s not locked. Hashtags make it easy to find and participate in conversations and plumb already existing communities.

“Twitter has somehow managed to get us to believe that we should have a space where we can all talk to one another,” Brock said.

Brock described Black Twitter as “the world’s largest Black group chat.” Prior to the space going mainstream, those community updates were siloed across different pockets of the web, he said. “Twitter, in a very strange way, has served as an aggregator of Black online identity, one that’s easier for people outside of the Black community to see but one that’s also easy for Black folk to find and congregate.”

But the features that make Twitter a place for queer or disabled or Black people to connect could also make marginalized peoples’ lives hell. No history of any part of Twitter is complete without discussing the abuse overwhelmingly targeting women and LGBTQ+ people — particularly when they are also people of color.

Capturing those experiences is one of the goals of A People’s History of Twitter (APHOT), a participatory archiving project that grew out of ultimately unsuccessful efforts to buy Twitter and make it a public utility, whose recent kick-off was co-hosted by Wagatwe Wanjuki and Jacky Alciné.

Part of the motivation for APHOT comes from the fact that many archival efforts decenter the users who make the platform valuable. Material from the project’s kickoff event referenced previous efforts such as “Hatching Twitter,” a book on the White men who founded the company, and the fact that many archival efforts are tied up in academia or government institutions.

It’s important to preserve stories of how the platform failed its Black users, because the media has failed to cover Black Twitter well, said Sydette Harry, a technologist and communications professional who is currently a senior fellow at University of Southern California. Harry also spoke at the APHOT kick-off event about social movements, change and institutions on Twitter.

“A lot of those stories start from the assumption that something is wrong with Black people when they noticed discrimination,” Harry said. “They start from the supposition that we have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Discussion of archiving Black Twitter has picked up renewed urgency and media attention following a mass exodus of users in November 2022 after Musk’s acquisition.

Challenges to the archiving process stem from ideas of what is worth archiving, as well as issues around consent, especially considering how Black people have been exploited or mistreated in historical collections. It’s important to remember that Twitter isn’t a monolith, Harry said. It’s made up of real people, many of whom might not want their often intimate tweets preserved for strangers to peruse.

Harry noted that when people talk about harassment on Twitter, the voices uplifted usually aren’t Black.

Collier grapples with the ethics of social media documentation at her work with Documenting The Now. Preventing the perpetuation of harm marginalized communities experience day to day has to be at the forefront of any sort of archive, she said, including how people are described and documented in the collections.

“One of my key concerns is how do we inspire people to own their own archives,” Clark said. People often have to be convinced that their tweets, these “small histories,” are worthy of attention. “I have to persuade people that there is something important there and walk with them as they re-experience their own lived experience, and figure out what’s important to them, what they want to mark as important to a larger community, and then figure out how to put that in a narrative form.”

Much of the way knowledge production works in America, Clark said, is grounded in what has already been incorporated into archives and valorized as worthy of attention. Archiving Black Twitter now reinforces there is something worthwhile for future generations to engage with. It’s important in the context of Black history being seen as unworthy of documentation in a world dominated by white supremacy.

The conversations around archiving Black Twitter are interesting right now, Harry said, because “it is a tacit admission that Black Twitter did something very specific and special on Twitter that we were never given or fully resourced to do.”

“It shouldn’t just be about, ‘How do we archive Black Twitter?’ it should be, ‘How do we respect Black Twitter?’ And most importantly, how do we honor and respect the Black people who made Black Twitter what it was?” Harry said. “That’s not the question that I ever hear come up.”

Even though it is painful, it’s important to document the harms experienced by Black women on Twitter, Collier said. Whenever women champion the stories of other women and femmes, they are put in a vulnerable position, she said.

“I would want [the archive] to also be a safe space for women, femmes, queer and transgender people, Black people broadly and people with disabilities,” Collier said. “I want it to feel like a safe space and not another place for us to be targeted.”

Collier wants anyone perusing the Twitter archives to have the same feelings she has when she goes to more traditional spaces where knowledge is gathered — not like it’s “super technical.”

“I often cry when I go to physical archives, I may laugh and smile,” Collier said. “I still want it to have that texture and that intimacy, despite it being in a digital format.”

The people at APHOT want to change the future of what news and social media can look like. Alciné said the team is hoping the learnings from the project can be used to build a new media platform centered on what people want, instead of corporate interests. Some examples he threw out were optimizing and prioritizing moderation instead of it being an additional feature, or making it clear to users how revenue works instead of privatizing advertising.

Both APHOT and Archiving Black Twitter are still in their early stages, with their respective organizers still determining what the final archive will look like.

Part of the joy of archiving is preserving something for the future with little idea of how it will be used. Clark said she is excited about people using the archive for creative projects, like the Twitter thread that spawned the “Zola” movie.

“Even in the way sometimes if the language has been co-opted, and the trends have been co-opted, and they show up in popular culture, I still think that having the source material for that is a very worthwhile endeavor,” Clark said.

A central theme that emerged in discussions of archiving Black Twitter is preserving not just the activism or traditionally newsworthy items, but also moments of joy and humor like an iconic Yahoo News typo or legendary parody tweets or #DemThrones watch parties.

“To say that there’s going to be one Black Twitter archive is almost antithetical to the spirit of Black Twitter,” Clark said.

Jasmine Mithani is a data visuals reporter at The 19th, where this story was originally published.

POSTED     May 15, 2023, 2:20 p.m.
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