By Ofelia Brooks
As an avid consumer of cultural content—most often Black pop culture—I usually experience cultural moments alone. When news of Whitney Houston’s death spread in 2012, I cried by myself. When Issa Dee came home to Lawrence’s lone pillow and Best Buy shirt on Insecure in 2016, I gasped in solitude. I watched Black Panther alone in 2018, and in 2019, I did the same with Homecoming. I assumed my experience was normal.
Then in 2020, the pandemic hit, and the loneliness that seemed tolerable for years became unbearable in months.
One day, during my usual quarantine BuzzFeed browsing, an article led me to a tweet which led me down a rabbit hole of stalking comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson’s entire Twitter presence. I longed to connect with her, and her other Twitter fans, as my craving for community grew while in lockdown's isolation.
I started poking around Twitter.com, looking for more of my kind of people.
Up until then, I led a social media-free life. I never saw the need for social media, having been in very social spaces like college and grad school when the apps were taking off. I didn’t know much about Twitter or where to start. Then it dawned on me that the Black writers and creatives whose content I regularly consumed in articles, podcasts, and newsletters were on Twitter. I searched for their profiles and scrolled through their feeds.
It was a revelation. I caught all the references, laughed at the inside jokes, and felt a part of something. For the first time, I didn’t grieve, gasp, or experience cultural moments alone.
Months later, after sitting on the sidelines during another Verzuz battle, I wanted in. I took a deep breath and created a Twitter account.
Being a part of the app, officially, strengthened my feelings of connectedness. Every night, I went to Twitter to join in the revelry of Black music on awards shows, the fights about who should win the next season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the touching remembrances after the deaths of Cicely Tyson and DMX.
I eventually mustered the courage to contribute to the conversation myself with agonized-over replies and mentions. I even gained some mutuals—all while becoming fluent in Twitter Speak like “replies,” “mentions,” and “DMs.” But all good things must come to an end. Or, as I might read in my Timeline, Black people can’t have nothing.
One morning, while scrolling, I couldn’t view a Tweet someone I followed had replied to. The Tweet, from someone who I also followed, was apparently unavailable. I went to their profile to figure out why.
Then Twitter told me, without mincing words, “You’re blocked.”
My heart dropped. How? Why? I never tagged, mentioned, or DM’d this person. The only conceivable offense I had committed was liking an absurd number of their Tweets.
I Googled furiously, hoping I could be unblocked somehow. I couldn’t. I remembered my analog days of Twitter and went to their profile through my internet browser. Buried in their feed was a PSA that they would block any new Twitter accounts that had only a few followers because they were being harassed by trolls.
I fit that description (I only had a handful of followers), but I wasn’t a troll. I was a Black woman, visibly so, trying to connect to other Black women and non-binary people. And I was blocked.
I turned to my Timeline for consolation, but I didn’t get any. Instead, I noticed my feed was full of closed replies and DMs and Tweets only visible to mutuals. I was back to loneliness, looking in instead of being a part.
Having read many Tweets referring to Twitter as a hellscape during my brief time on the app, I assumed it wasn’t personal. People—especially Black women and non-binary people—had to protect themselves online. But I had also read about Twitter being a magical place where Black people found community. So it was hard not to take it personally—I was a Black person being denied entry.
I stayed in my feelings while doing some soul—and internet—searching. The articles on the toxicity of Twitter and other platforms numbered in the thousands. A 2017 Amnesty International study found that Black women on Twitter were 84% more likely to be targeted for harassment than white women. According to a 2021 report by GLAAD, 64% of LGBTQ social media users reported experiencing harassment. Unfortunately, no one has studied the experiences of Black queer and nonbinary people on Twitter, but given how many have quit the platform, surely the numbers were worse.
For every article on toxicity, there was another from Twitter or a top social media site’s headquarters about how they were addressing it. The preferred mechanism as of late seems to be: a focus on the users instead of the abusers.
This year, top sites have implemented anti-abuse tools that put the onus on the users to protect themselves. Take Instagram’s Limits feature, which allows users to limit their interactions when they go viral, or Hidden Words, which filters offensive messages into a folder that users can choose to never view. Twitter has been eyeing similar anti-abuse tools, like allowing users to “unmention” themselves, block mentions for a day or longer, or restrict being mentioned at all.
Less than a year on the apps, and even I can tell these new tools are doomed. Requiring the user to protect themselves from abuse will most certainly not stop abuse.
But Twitter knows this. It’s known about these problems for years. The podcast, “There Are No Girls On the Internet,” reported on Twitter doing nothing in 2014 in response to misogynist trolls launching a disinformation campaign against Black feminists. Forbes reported on numerous Black social media users whose past and present reports of abuse fell on deaf ears. Most recently, Black soccer players boycotted social media to protest the racist vitriol they experienced in April.
It’s hard not to see these new initiatives as, at best, misguided, and at worst, performative. Twitter can stop abuse easily: ban abusers. Until then, it’s failing at its only purpose: connecting people.
In the end, how could I fault the user who blocked me? That’s all they could do. Sure, they lost out on one enthusiastic follower, but of course that loss is worth being protected from a countless number of trolls. Twitter is to blame, not them.
When Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors recently reflected on 15 tumultuous years on social media, she encouraged users to use the apps responsibly and “hold space for human beings often impacted by social media’s inherent racism, sexism, and capitalism.”
So I’m turning my pain into positivity. I’m liking, re-Tweeting, and linking to any Black woman or non-binary person who comes across my timeline whenever they write an article, post a selfie, get a new job or a new hairstyle.
Because, sure, I want to find a community on Twitter, but, as Cullors reminds us, I also have a responsibility to build that community.
So I bought the book and subscribed to the podcast of the user who blocked me
I’m holding space for you, sis. I hope one day we can connect.
Ofelia Brooks (she/her) is a Black, Latiné, first-generation writer and lawyer. Her recent or forthcoming work appears in Drunk Monkeys, Amplify, Spillover, Honeyfire, and Cutleaf. She is, with cautious optimism, on Twitter and Instagram @ofeliabrooksesq. She can also be found at ofeliabrooksesq.com