‘Black Twitter’: Movements, Memes and Crying Jordan

‘Black Twitter’: Movements, Memes and Crying Jordan

When Prentice Penny first began work on the forthcoming docuseries “Black Twitter: A People’s History,” the last thing the director wanted to do was explain to anybody just what Black Twitter was. How could he?

“Everybody has a different opinion what it is, and a different entry point and path to how they feel about it,” he said.

“Black Twitter” is a kind of shorthand descriptor referring loosely to commentary, jokes and other kinds of cultural conversation and activism driven largely by Black users of the social media platform now named X. What Penny wanted to do was capture the pivotal moments that have come to define this organic online community, including the movements (Black Lives Matter; OscarsSoWhite) and defining hashtags (#uknowurblackwhen, #BlackGirlMagic) it has propelled and championed.

And he wanted to do all of this while Black Twitter was still around.

“So much of Black culture in this country isn’t documented,” Penny said. “When you see books about culture and race being banned, when you see narratives saying, oh, there were good sides to slavery, you realize that Black Twitter could be here today and gone tomorrow.”

Indeed, since Penny started the project, Twitter itself has disappeared — or the name officially has, anyway. “I don’t trust anybody who stopped calling it Twitter,” said Jason Parham, a producer on the show whose 2021 Wired story “A People’s History of Black Twitter” inspired the series.

Now streaming on Hulu, the three-part series opens with the rise of Black Twitter before and during the Obama presidency, with nods to earlier online platforms like Blackvoices and NetNoir, and continues through the Trump years and into the pandemic.

Critics, artists, journalists and activists, including the stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell, the author Roxane Gay, the writer and trans activist Raquel Willis and the Northeastern journalism professor Meredith Clark, discuss what Black Twitter meant to them.

Also appearing are individuals who made their names on Black Twitter, like CaShawn Thompson, whose offhand tweet “Black girls are magic” went viral and sparked a global conversation, and Ashley Weatherspoon, whose uknowurblackwhen hashtag in 2009 is credited as one of Black Twitter’s foundational sparks.

More than 40 people sat down for interviews. “I’ve been on projects where you’re pulling teeth to try to get somebody to sit down,” said Joie Jacoby, the showrunner and a documentary filmmaker (“Candace Parker: Unapologetic”). “This wasn’t like that. People wanted to talk.”

Parham’s Wired article was a reaction, at least in part, to stories about Black Twitter he had been seeing in other outlets. “There were media folks and white folks in general saying, ‘What are all these Black folks doing over there on Twitter?’” Parham said. “It was sort of like we were in a petri dish.”

“Black Twitter” began production at the beginning of 2023, not long after Penny completed his duties as the showrunner on the HBO series “Insecure.” He primarily used Twitter for Los Angeles Lakers updates, “and that was sort of my entryway into Black Twitter, this sort of coming from the N.B.A. world,” he said. But he initially had no interest in making a film about it — he had never done a documentary before, let alone one about something so amorphous. “I was scared,” he admitted.

At first, it was difficult to find a through-line in a story with so many different voices, stories and pivotal moments. “But then we realized that this was really a coming-of-age story,” Penny said. “Black Twitter was coming of age, and so was the community. That’s why Trayvon Martin is different from Rodney King: The platform allowed people to give voice to it in ways that didn’t exist 20, 30 years ago.”

For Jacoby, “It was so much bigger than a social media platform story,” she said. “We wanted to tell a story about Black people in America over the last 25 years in a way that was fun, a celebration, but that was also meaningful and authentic to who we are.”

Finding the right tone was tricky, given the often somber subject matter. The second episode takes the viewer from the killing of Trayvon Martin and the rise of Black Lives Matter through the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“We didn’t want it to be a total downer,” Jacoby said.

Comedy became a key counterbalance, Parham said. “One thing Black folks are going to do is get a joke off, no matter how bad things get,” he said.

To that end, the series also explores the roots and growth of memes like Crying Jordan, which creatively repurposed a photo of Michael Jordan weeping at his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and #MeetMeInTemecula, in which an online spat between strangers over Kobe Bryant devolved into a challenge to fight about it, on Christmas Day, in a small California town.

“We were cracking up all the time,” Jacoby said.

One big question lingered: When, where and how should the story end? Parham’s Wired article ended with reflections about the legacy of Black Twitter and about the Jan. 6 insurrection. (In the piece, the podcast host Brandon Jenkins said, “If we saw Black people out there, we’d know that we were about to watch one of the biggest massacres to ever take place on American soil.”)

For the docuseries, Penny wanted to extend the narrative to the present day and to include such topics as the global coronavirus pandemic and the racist backlash against Black Twitter. But then a funny thing happened mid-production: Elon Musk bought the platform.

“It became, how does this impact the story?” Penny said. “But as people started getting fired and the hate speech started going up, it just really crystallized to me why we were making the doc. So many things on the internet are impermanent, and if Elon wanted to, he could turn it off, and it would all be gone.”

The creators hope the series shows the enormous impact that Black Twitter has had on the culture, from encouraging media outlets to cover stories like Ferguson to convincing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify its ranks. They also hope it shows that the whole thing was about more than just celebrities like Michael Jordan, crying or not, or Rihanna, who transformed the Twitter beef (against everyone from Joan Rivers to Ciara) into high art.

“Black Twitter is made up of all of us: famous people, regular people, and everything in between,” Penny said. “It’s a great democratization of a space.”

When the series had its world premiere at South by Southwest in March, Jacoby invited members of her family to the screening. “A lot of Black people aren’t on Twitter,” she said. “So I have family that was like, ‘What is this all about? What are you doing here?’”

“Then one of my sisters, she saw Episode 1 and 2, and she was like, ‘Oh, it’s us,’” Jacoby said, laughing. “‘It’s just us on the internet.’ And I was like, yeah, pretty much.”

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