Fleeing Elon Musk’s X, the Quest to Re-create ‘Black Twitter’

Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
Protesters chant “Say His Name, George Floyd” near a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis. The response to 2020 murder of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and the killings of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 showed the power of Black Twitter to draw attention to social injustice.

Until Elon Musk bought Twitter last fall, April Reign thought she couldn’t live without the platform. Over 13 years and 641,000 tweets, she became part of a community of extremely online Black users who shared everything from funny memes to job opportunities.

In 2015, that community turned Reign’s dashed-off hashtag – #OscarsSoWhite – into a viral campaign that sparked real-world change, pushing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to triple the number of Oscar-voting members of color. Other hashtags – #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #HandsUpDontShoot – became touchstones for racial justice.

But then Musk restored thousands of banned accounts. Use of the n-word spiked. And many in Reign’s orbit – a vast, diverse and highly influential network collectively known as Black Twitter – began to log out.

Prominent Black users are now moving to other sites, attempting to re-create Black Twitter on a dizzying array of emerging services, from Mastodon to Meta’s just-launched Threads. Smaller apps also have cropped up or gained users, including the safety-focused Spoutible and Black-owned Fanbase and Somewhere Good. The latest entrant is Spill, a Twitter alternative launched in June by a Black Twitter executive – one of many fired by Musk.

None of these services so far rival Twitter’s influence. Though the social media site – rebranded as X – has declined under Musk, it still seems to have plenty of clout. On the right, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently launched his bid for the GOP presidential nomination with a glitch-filled live stream on the platform. And Black networks recently used the site to rally support for Black basketball star Brittney Griner during her imprisonment in Russia, as well as to promote movies with Black stars, such as “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” remake.

Meanwhile, some competing services – notably Bluesky, the invitation-only platform created by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey – have strained relationships with Black users by failing to police racist attacks.

Black Twitter has become a “digital diaspora,” in search of a new home, said André Brock, a media studies professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who has researched Black Twitter for more than a decade.

Some fear the unique constellation of circumstances that fueled Black Twitter’s cultural resonance may prove difficult to replicate. Still, for some users, there’s no turning back.

Touré, a host at TheGrio, a media network geared toward Black Americans, has more than 220,000 followers on Twitter, but said his interactions there leave him so “triggered and tired” these days that he rarely posts.

“There was a time I felt Twitter was, like, too important,” Touré said, recalling former president Donald Trump’s prolific use of the site. But “with Elon, there were purposeful, dumb changes that felt like, ‘you’re literally shoving me out the door.'”

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‘Bye, Felicia’

Soon after Twitter was founded in 2006, researchers noticed that Black users were overrepresented on the site. Edison Research estimated in 2010 that Black people made up a quarter of Twitter users – roughly twice their share in the general population.

Black Twitter had other unique characteristics: People in the network were likely to follow one another, creating a dialogue that catapulted memes, clapbacks, hashtags and witticisms onto Twitter’s Trending Topics list. There, they became visible to a broader Twitter universe populated by celebrities, politicians, journalists and other culture mavens.

As a result, Black voices were elevated in a way that felt new. “People who pulled the levers of the most powerful institutions in society suddenly had a bunch of Black friends that they wouldn’t have had before. And that had a tremendous impact,” said American University journalism professor Wesley Lowery, a prolific Twitter user with more than 630,000 followers.

Black Twitter popularized any number of cultural memes, as well as slang phrases like “on fleek” (perfectly done or exactly right) and “Bye, Felicia,” a line from “Friday,” the 1995 Ice Cube film, “often used online as a dismissive farewell,” according to the website KnowYourMeme.com.

But it was the shootings of two Black teenagers – Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 – that ignited the network’s political power. Hashtags like #HandsUpDon’tShoot, #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter became rallying cries for racial-justice protesters across the nation. And after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the Black Lives Matter hashtag – complemented by a new entry: #ICantBreathe – provided momentum for a racial reckoning.

Lowery, who covered Brown’s death and other police shootings for The Washington Post, said Twitter was critical to drawing media coverage to these events.

“The entire history of the mainstream media was that the editor made decisions about what to cover or what people were talking about based on what was said in his book club or at a dinner party. Suddenly, you had all these Black perspectives that were perceived as ‘That’s what everybody’s talking about.'”

On Twitter, Lowery said, “Black people gained a printing press to put issues important to them in front of people who control our society.” Brock described it as a “potent example of Black digital expertise, one that decenters whiteness as a default internet identity.”

While cultivating Black voices on the platform, Twitter also was seen as a welcoming venue for Black employees. The company had an active employee group, called the Blackbirds, and brought on a Black Twitter influencer, God-is Rivera, to be its liaison with creators. Dorsey once appeared with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson – now an adviser to Spill – wearing a company-made T-shirt bearing the slogan #StayWoke.

Twitter also worked to rein in the trolling and harassment aimed largely at women and people from marginalized groups. Between 2018 and Musk’s acquisition, the company bolstered its content moderation capacity and adopted rules against misinformation, hate speech, and other harmful content.

Much of that work has disappeared under Musk, who describes himself as a “free-speech absolutist.” (Musk mocked the #StayWoke T-shirts when he found them at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters after the sale.) Most of the employees in charge of eliminating harmful content have either been laid off or quit, even as Musk has lifted the bans on right-wing and extremist accounts.

Hate speech has surged on the platform. Researchers with the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a group that analyzes hundreds of millions of messages across social media, discovered an account that included a Nazi swastika in its profile picture tweeting antisemitic memes. Use of the n-word soared by nearly 500 percent, and the slur popped up in the handle of an account authorized by Musk’s subscription service, Twitter Blue.

And thus the exodus of Black users began.

Over the last 12 months, the majority of Americans who have used Twitter say they have taken a break from the platform, including 67 percent of Black Americans and 69 percent of women, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Today, it would be impossible for Twitter to be the locus of attention for a similar racial justice movement as we saw in 2020,” said Meredith Clark, an associate journalism professor at Northeastern University who is archiving Black Twitter. “What Elon’s purchase of Twitter has successfully done is create a hostile environment for [Black] folks who were meeting in good faith, to connect and find community.”

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The national water cooler

Photo for The Washington Post by Maya Umemoto Gorman
Former Twitter executive Alphonzo Terrell conceived Spill as a Twitter alternative designed to be welcoming to Black audiences. The app surged to the top of the Apple app store in response to changes to Twitter made by Musk.

On July 1, Musk provoked outrage by limiting the number of tweets people could view on any given day. It was just the latest decision that alienated users, and executives at other social platforms smelled blood in the water.

At Meta, executives accelerated the launch of Threads, that company’s Twitter alternative. At Bluesky, executives saw a surge of new users. And at Spill, co-founder Alphonzo Terrell issued a Black Twitter call to action.

“Let’s go to #1 for the CULTURE, show em who really run these social streets,” Terrell tweeted, seeking support for his then-two-week-old app.

To Terrell’s surprise, Spill surged to the top spot in the social category on Apple’s app store, gaining more than 100,000 new members. The following day, Spill also became the top trending topic on Twitter, showcasing Black Twitter’s continued vitality.

Designed as a safe and rewarding space for the diverse communities that had fueled waves of cultural and political activism on Twitter, TikTok and other sites, Spill was conceived in the days after Musk acquired Twitter and laid off thousands of Twitter employees – including Terrell.

Terrell was Twitter’s global head of social and editorial, in charge of teams that posted under company Twitter handles. He called another former Black Twitter executive, DeVaris Brown, who had been an engineering product lead before leaving the company in 2020.

That night, the two talked about all the challenges facing the Black community online – not just harassment but also the lack of credit or compensation for original ideas. The time seemed right for something new.

“I had complete conviction, in that moment, given everything that happened, that this was not going to change unless we built something from the ground up,” Terrell said.

They named their app Spill, for “spill the tea” – meaning “speak your truth” or “gossip” – a phrase that originated in Black queer communities. It would use large fonts and have an easy template for people to build visual memes. A “like” button would be replaced with a teacup icon. And the service would be moderated, both by people and by AI algorithms trained to pick up on keywords relevant or harmful to the Black community.

Terrell said it could be the first such language model trained on how Black communities speak to one another.

Terrell noted that Spill isn’t designed to be a Twitter clone. And he regularly uses Twitter to boost the new app. But Musk’s takeover has created a vacuum in the social media space, he said, and a chance for innovation.

“Marginalized groups have carved out space on digital platforms since the beginning of the internet, even though it wasn’t necessarily designed for them,” he said. “It’s the people – not the platform. Wherever Black people decide to show up, it’s going to be impactful.”

Thus far, researchers say, no app has managed to provide a home for Black Twitter. Certainly none has demonstrated an ability to make an idea go viral to the same degree and spread off-platform.

Among the older sites, Facebook is too private and YouTube is more akin to a library or content archive. LinkedIn can offer professional networking, but it’s not a place for movements or political debates.

Instagram and TikTok emphasize images and video – not text – and feed users content from strangers and celebrities, diminishing the ability to build and elevate a personal network. Mastodon is clunky. Bluesky and Threads are still new. So is Spill.

Touré of TheGrio said he’s experimenting with TikTok, but making videos is time-consuming and lacks the spontaneity of Twitter’s rapid-fire conversation. “Twitter gave us a national water cooler where anyone could speak about their world. There’s no comparable platform,” he said.

Lowery agreed. He mentioned the 2022 Oscars ceremony, when actor Will Smith slapped host Chris Rock on live TV. If that “happened tomorrow night,” he said, “there’s still as much of a likelihood the conversation would be on Twitter as anywhere else.”

Reign, now an adviser to Spill, acknowledged that “people still use the service. But the vivacity, the energy, and the sense of community are all missing.”

“Elon killed Black Twitter,” she said. Its loss “has created an incredible void.”