What the Black Twitter Docuseries Gets Wrong

What the Black Twitter Docuseries Gets Wrong

Black Twitter will not save us for what’s to come. As the days towards the 2024 presidential election draw near and the rage-filled screams of college students fill the halls of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, the United States finds itself at a crossroads. Will the most powerful country in the world revert back to when Donald Trump won the White House, or will we vote for Joe Biden to maintain his stronghold? This is the question that every American must answer before and on November 5.

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If the everyday American (specifically the everyday Black American) was undecided about which candidate to vote for, it only takes one watch of Black Twitter: A People’s History, a three part docuseries based on journalist Jason Parham’s 2021 WIRED article “A People’s History of Black Twitter,” to understand that we must vote for Biden.

The series attempts to archive, document, and chronicle the force that is known as Black Twitter, two words that have been used to characterize Black digital life on the social media platform. It’s a platform that the series will remind you was not created by Black people, but brought into prominence by the attitudes, mannerisms, and behaviors of Black users on Twitter. But despite incessant commentary about how Black people are not a monolith, the docuseries—in its attempt to associate the Black Twitter community with an era that supposedly no longer exists—ultimately treats Black Twitter as such.

Creation is at the core of the series’ story. The words of Amiri Baraka’s “Technology & Ethos” essay are repeated and paraphrased throughout the three-part series in a fashion similar to a mother reading her child’s favorite tall tale before tucking them into bed. The essay opens with the following: “Machines (as Norbert Weiner said) are an extension of their inventor-creators. That is not simple once you think. Machines, the entire technology of the West, is just that, the technology of the West.” Baraka continues: “Nothing has to look or function the way it does. The West man’s freedom, unscientifically got at the expense of the rest of the world’s people, has allowed him to xpand his mind–spread his sensibility wherever it cdgo, & so shaped the world, & its powerful artifact-engines.”

The next line is where Black Twitter, or more broadly the relationship between Black people and technology, come into play. “Political power is also the power to create—not only what you will—but to be freed to go where ever you can go—(mentally physically as well). Black creation—creation powered by the Black ethos brings very special results.”

In the case of both Twitter the platform and also Twitter the company—where Black people acquired leadership positions at one of the fastest growing tech companies in the world, used their presence online to enact change in the areas of racial justice and police reform, and increased diversity and representation from Hollywood to Silicon Valley and everywhere in between—what did those very special results bring? That answer is complicated, and one that the docuseries tries to grapple with but falls short.

As seen in the series, #OscarsSoWhite corrected a decades long practice of exclusion by the Academy and created opportunities for actors of color to receive membership into the voting body that decides the Oscars. In the nine years since the hashtag’s creation, gradual efforts were made towards greater representation on screen. Yet, the subsequent mass exodus of women of color in Hollywood leadership positions and the low number of films directed by women and people of color seems to contradict the docuseries’ overarching narrative of a hashtag’s singular impact. Yes, the hashtag narrative as an idiom to bring forth change is powerful, but the counter response to them is just as telling.

The most blatant example of this is the #BlackLivesMatter portion of the docuseries. The docuseries chronicles the pivotal role Twitter played in the rise of citizen journalism, particularly during the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It also looks at the creation of #SayHerName, a social media response to the erasure of Black women, such as Sandra Bland, and Black trans women, like Mya Hall, who lost their lives to police violence, but were often overlooked by the male-centered BLM movement.

This is where Baraka is felt the most: Black creators have harnessed the power of technology, in order to counteract the West’s political power, which puts them in danger of losing their lives. Minute after minute, frame after frame, the docuseries asks the viewer to bear witness to the ways in which Black Twitter, through the creation and utilization of hashtags, on-the-ground reporting, and 24/7 news coverage, has long been victimized by police violence.

But like Baraka said, the machine is an extension of its inventor-creator, and the creator, or in this case the executive producers of the docuseries, have a hand in its invention. It’s a creation that feels foreign to those who birthed and have maintained Black Twitter as a living and breathing cultural archive of Black digital life. A life that has no singular partisan belief or political agenda. A life that, in many ways, bites the hand of the docuseries creators. It’s a hand that delicately weaves the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency with the birth and rise of Black Twitter. The two are in a covenant of holy matrimony.

Just ask Brad Jenkins, former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, who frequently appears throughout the docuseries. Or Carri Twigg, the former Associate Director of Public Engagement of the White House, who serves as one of the series’ executive producers. There is no direct mention that the Black Lives Matter movement started under the Obama administration—or acknowledgment of the overwhelming collective action by Black students at the University of Missouri during that time, as well as the solidarity actions that occurred across college campuses in the U.S.

The series goes on to connect the rise of misinformation, the proliferation of Russian bots, and the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a reaction to the Obama presidency and Black Twitter. In fact, the series’ somber moments—where anti-Black sentiment is seen in reports of algorithms being altered to increase traffic towards users that display racist and misogynistic behaviors online, and clips of white women calling the police to inflict harm and violence on Black people for simply livingare linked to the Trump portion of the series. But that is ahistorical in and of itself because Black women have been calling attention to the ways in which they are subjected to anti-Black violence and harassment online since the 1990s. BBQ Becky is just Carolyn Bryant by another name.

Read More: Twitter Offers More Transparency on Racist Abuse by Its Users, but Few Solutions

If the Obama years of Black Twitter were fun, the docuseries posits, the Trump years of Black Twitter were hell. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the global uprisings over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the year 2020 within the docuseries is marked by culture shifts towards violence, including the misogynoir Megan Thee Stallion experienced online after she came forward about being physically assaulted by Tory Lanez. The year is also peppered with glimmers of a Black Twitter of yesteryear: a communal moment of gathering to live tweet “Verzuz” challenges or to watch The Last Dance as a family. Communal moments that are thought to be associated with the Obama administration.

And just like that, the docuseries pivots to showcase the Black voters in South Carolina, who are thanked for their votes for Biden in the 2020 election. Biden is even described as Obama’s right hand man. It is in this moment that the series wants the audience to remember the joy of the Obama years, the hope of the Obama years, and most importantly, the impact of Black voters in the Obama years.

I do not mean to spoil the climax of the 2020 section of the docuseries, but Biden won and Elon Musk replaced Trump as the villain of the series. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, now known as X, is met with despair, exodus, and rage. Efforts to humble and humiliate Musk are flashed across the screen as former Black employees at Twitter in one-on-one interviews discuss the destruction of their years of labor and hard work to diversify the platform. Black academics, celebrities, and personalities lament as they say a goodbye to the good days of Twitter. Mastodon, BlueSky, Spill, LinkedIn, and of course TikTok are depicted as places of solace for Black users who feel unwelcome on X. (X has since eliminated any protections for marginalized and disenfranchised users on the platforms.)

Four years after the election of Biden to the presidency and with the forthcoming election looming, the series bids Black Twitter adieu with the foresight that Black people will always continue to innovate, despite not being given the tools or resources to create. This is exemplified by a reference to soul food, and a call to action to create our own archives—the thesis of Black Twitter: A People’s History.

But what Black Twitter fails to realize—and simply can’t capture—is that we are not in 2008 anymore. Or 2012. Or 2020. The Obama coalition is dead. The Biden coalition is falling apart by the day and culturally resonant programming falls flat compared to the citizen-led reporting that is coming to life in front of our very eyes. Just look at the actions of the student journalists at WKCR, the Columbia University radio station that covered the raid of Hamilton Hall by the New York Police Department. Or the wave of anti-war protests by Black students at HBCUs. Guess where these students learned how to organize from? Black Twitter. They’re not just archiving their own stories—they’re creating them.

But that’s the flaw of content like this. It doesn’t have the capacity to capture the legacy of a movement because it’s a movement that isn’t over. It is still unfurling—still morphing and coming to life in front of our very eyes. These are children who came of age on Black Twitter. They’re still using those tools to make us laugh, to inspire change, to create community.

If there is anyone who will save us (and in turn, if there’s anything worth saving), it’s them. Not Black Twitter.

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