Near the end In 2009, in the twilight ten years after the first black person was elected President of the United States, Ashley Weatherspoon was chasing virality on a young app called TwitterAs a personal assistant to singer Adrienne Bailon and a member of pop bands 3LW and Cheetah Girls, Weatherspoon often works in social media strategy. For several weeks, she and Bailon have been testing the hashtags on their two feeds to see what will connect with fans. The #UKnowUrBoyfriendsCheatingWhen change brought a slight success. Later, during a car ride near Manhattan, they started playing #UKnowUrFromNewYorkWhen. “We started to get angry about this,” Weatherspoon told me when we talked on the phone in June. Just as the two women were talking and laughing, a better idea appeared in Weatherspoon’s mind. “Then I said, oh,’When you knew you were black…'”

It was the first Sunday in September, and it happened to be 4:25pm when Weatherspoon logged into Twitter and wrote, “#Uknowurblackwhen you cancel your plan when it rains.” The tag spread like wildfire. Within two hours, 1.2% of all Twitter communications revolved around the Weatherspoon hashtag, as black users repeatedly commented on everything from car rims to tall T-shirts. This is the viral fashion she is pursuing and confirms the rich fabrics worn together on the entire platform. Here, in all its bleak glory, is black Twitter.

More than a decade later, black Twitter has not only become the most dynamic subset of Twitter, but also the most dynamic subset of the wider social Internet. It can create, shape, and remix pop culture at the speed of light, and it’s still almost all memes (Crying Jordan, is this you?), tags (#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #OscarsSoWhite, #YouOKSis), and social justice causes (me too) Incubator, Black Lives Matter) is worth knowing. It is both news and analysis, phone calls and responses, judges and juries-comedy performances, therapy sessions and family picnics all in one. Black Twitter is a multiverse, but also an archive and an all-seeing lens into the future. As Weatherspoon said: “Our experience is universal. Our experience is very rich. Our experience is relevant.”

Although Twitter was launched 15 years ago today, its goal is to change the way and speed of people’s online communication, but the clever use of the platform by black users can be traced back even further. In 1970, when the computer revolution was still in its infancy, Amiri Baraka, the founder of the black art movement, published an article titled “Technology and Spirit.” “How do you communicate with the majority of black people?” he asked. “What is our spirit and what will it project? What machines will it produce? What will they achieve?”

For black users today, Twitter is the oracle of Baraka: voice and community, power and empowerment. In his words, it has become a “imagination-thinking-construction-motivation!!!” space. What follows is the first official chronicle of how all this wonderfully fits together. Like all history, it is incomplete. But this is the beginning. An outline. Think of it as a record of Blackness—how it moved and prospered online, how it was created, how it communicated—telled through the eyes of those living in it.

Part 1: Coming Together, 2008-2012

With the failure of early Internet forums such as BlackVoices, Melanet, and NetNoir in the mid-2000s, there was very little online space to satisfy black interests. BlackPlanet and MySpace failed to fill the gap, and Facebook has not fully grasped the essence of real-time communication. The user is looking for the next thing.

Kozza Babumba, Genius Social Director: Before 2007, we had almost never had a conversation about anything. As a community, we are not talking about how we feel when singing the national anthem. Or what it was like when OJ drove that white Mustang. We just watched it on TV.


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