While it may be a haven for trolls, the social-media platform also provides many people of color a big, supportive community—and a means to find work.
For the most part, Twitter has been good to me. The opportunities I’ve received in my journalism and writing careers thus far have been in large part because of the platform. In fact, when this piece goes live, I will absolutely post it on Twitter before I share it anywhere else. I say this because there is always a little bit of guilt in me when I critique the things I love. Yes, Twitter has amplified my voice, it is the home where I’ve formed both lasting and fulfilling professional and personal relationships, and the place where I went viral, but Twitter—with its rampant trolls, Nazis, sexists, racists, and misogynists—is not a bed of roses. If you’re unlucky, you can find them all rolled into one like the gift no one wants.
Whenever I gripe to my family and friends who are not users of Twitter they say the same thing. “Why don’t you just leave? There are other social-media platforms that you can go to instead.” The question, while well-intentioned, isn’t plausible for me at this stage in my career. Twitter, despite its may failings, gives me a sense of community in my chosen identities Black, Disabled, and female. There is a group of people there that I can talk to about popular culture, books, movies, music, and cheesecake. More importantly, Twitter is where I make money. I don’t make the money from sponsored tweets or the other traditional ways in which many people can make money on social media. My revenue comes from my activism and discussing my lived experiences via the platform. I’ve had threads on the mistreatment of disabled people, ableist language, high-heeled shoes, and my very first unassisted ponytail turn into paid essays. If I weren’t on the platform would those essays still have happened? Maybe. But the audience I have built via Twitter and the editors who read thread of mine and like it enough to reach out and ask me to write for their publications might not know me at all.
Where media is concerned, there’s a certain amount of professional credibility built on Twitter these days—editors pay attention to things like follower counts and viral threads. And if you go to sell a book? You best believe publishers will be looking at your “platform” at least as much as your proposal.
There is absolute irony in loving a platform that has admittedly brought as much strife as it has joy. Twitter means a lot to me and I will stay as long as it remains relevant and alive. However, I have thought about leaving many times. When my friend Vilissa Thompson created #DisabilityTooWhite to showcase the often-unbearable whiteness of disability in media and in medical-based media, I considered leaving Twitter long-term because I was tired of the racist trolls in my mentions calling me every name but my own after my tagged tweets got enough attention. I’d spend the following days blocking them. When I blocked two, four would appear in their place. I reconsidered after my tweet about wishing to see disabled people in beauty campaigns got the attention of Rihanna fans who believed I was taking shots at her. This time, my verified, blue-check status came in handy. The worst of the tweets led to suspended accounts unlike the instances in the #DisabilityTooWhite situation when my then-non-verified-account reports were answered with emails stating that the tweets I reported weren’t in violation of the rules. Verification has given me perks, and now keeps me from seeing the worst tweets. So when Chelsea Clinton retweeted a video of mine that I made to try and get the attention of Ellen DeGeneres with the hopes of getting on her show, I only saw the nastiest tweets after pressing the “show more tweets” link.
Twitter has a long way to go in terms of curtailing the violence on its platform so that women, especially women of color and women in other intersecting identities can prosper the way we deserve to. I am not the only woman of color who sees revenue via Twitter and has mixed feelings about the trolls and the lack of accountability for their actions. But every time a high-profile influencer leaves because they can no longer take the abuse, it feels more like a luxury that individual has by virtue of their fame, not like something we can all do.
Tee Franklin, a comic writer and influencer in New Jersey, cites Twitter as one of many places where she sees a revenue stream on social media. This fact lets her look at the various boycotts aimed at getting Twitter to do a better job of policing itself as a thing she doesn’t participate in.
“Being an influencer, I have to be on social media, especially Twitter often,” she says. “I’ve gotten paid to tweet anything from Pampers to books, television shows, mental-health programs and so much more. I choose which topics I’d like to tweet about and then someone reaches out to me with numbers and I receive payment anywhere from $25 to $500. The more I’m on Twitter, the more followers I get and of course, the more followers I have the price tag goes up.” When Tee does leave twitter, she does so for mental and physical health reasons for up to a month.
Twitter breaks are common among many women of color that I know. We often need the break from the racist Yahtzee in our mentions, the constant questioning of our knowledge about the things we are well versed in, and the toll of violence thrown at us for the refusal to remain quiet and complacent in the face of oppression.
Natalia Sylvester, an author who lives in Texas, credits Twitter for helping her find clients. She runs a copywriting studio named Inky Clean. She joined Twitter in 2009 before publishing her first book.
“I’m an immigrant and a Latina—of course I’ve had the occasional follower DM me to say they’re turned off by how ‘political’ I can be,” she says. “If they can’t see how my existence is already politicized, I doubt they’d like my books or anything I have to say anyways. They’re not who I write for, but the people who do get it? Connecting with them is worth so much more than a spiteful unfollow from someone who can’t respect where I’m coming from. Their discomfort is not my problem.”
While Sylvester may take the occasional mental health break from Twitter, she finds it too valuable to leave. And she, like many women of color, felt like the recent Twitter boycott would just give the trolls what they want: silenced women. “There are too many forces actively trying to silence women of color, that to be a willing participant seemed counter-intuitive to me,” she says. “Twitter’s a vehicle but it’s powered by our voices. Boycotting it would’ve been like stepping out of the car when everyone else is driving. We still have so far to go and so much to say.”
The act of silence as a protest tool that ends up being harmful for marginalized voices is not new, but it has seen a resurgence in the age of the social media platform. For Ifakemi, the owner of Kitchen Witch 216–a Cleveland-based online apothecary, which opened a year ago and offered its services 100 percent through Twitter initially, and continues to market through Twitter only–being on Twitter is synonymous with survival. The money from Twitter-sold services keeps their bills paid and a roof over their head and their child’s head. Even as a full-time science teacher the money is necessary.
“While I understand the purpose of the hashtags calling for boycotting Twitter, I honestly do not think that it is beneficial to people of color,” they say. “I cannot afford to risk losing money needed to support my family behind a movement that does not support me and my people. I honestly do not have that luxury, as the money I make from my business sometimes determines the quality of a meal I can feed my family. Instead I would rather support movements that are by my people and for my people. I would rather support movements to bring attention to the injustices that women of color face, and Twitter is a great outlet to do so.”
Writer and small business owner Esmé Weijun Wang of California uses Twitter daily and promotes products and content of her small business, The Unexpected Shape. The only effort she has seen to boycott Twitter was the one in support of Rose McGowan. She decided not to participate for a very specific reason.
“I ended up not boycotting on that day not because Twitter helps my business, but because of issues regarding race and gender. On that day, I thought the #WOCaffirmation hashtag was beautiful. I would definitely boycott Twitter if I felt it were under the right circumstances.”
Esmé brings up a central problem to Twitter as a whole. There are often only certain people we protect and rally behind and until Twitter rallies behind us all, we will still be facing this reality. We live in a society that uses money as our form of currency. The way we acquire enough of it to survive is not the same way we may have 20 or even 10 years ago. The rules have changed and they are continuing to change. We are still pushing for Twitter to be better; long gone are the days where marginalized people simply fall in line and accept violence whether it comes from people or the places that help us make money. The next time someone says, “Why don’t you just leave?,” ask them if they are going to pay you to leave. Because your mom was right: Money doesn’t grow on trees. However, it does grow on social-media sites, even the ones that could stand to actually listen to their users.
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