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What happens to 'Black Twitter' under Musk?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

JOHN OLIVER: Elon Musk making big moves as he starts running Twitter - potentially into the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: You know, this whole thing happening with Elon Musk and Twitter reminds me of - I think it was Mike Tyson who had that line where he said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been only a couple of weeks since billionaire Elon Musk acquired Twitter, and the ensuing, well, chaos has been late-night comedy gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW")

JAMES CORDEN: Forty-four billion dollars. Imagine having so much money, you think it's a good idea to buy hell.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Within hours of Musk's team closing the $44 billion deal, anti-Semitic and racist tweets surged on the platform. A few days later, Musk himself shared a link to a false conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul Pelosi. Musk later deleted the link to a right-wing site known for pushing fake stories about left-leaning targets. Top executives were fired or resigned. Thousands of employees were let go. It's estimated that half of Twitter's global workforce was summarily laid off. A flood of fake accounts resulted from a change in the blue check verification process that allowed anyone to buy verification for $8 a month. And even with all that hot mess, tech observers say it could get worse.

ASHLEE VANCE: (Laughter) It's been quite extraordinary.

MARTIN: Ashlee Vance wrote a biography of Musk in 2017.

VANCE: I think people were a bit worried about how things would play out. And it's, I think, even more chaotic than anyone could have expected.

MARTIN: Speaking to NPR this week, Vance said a lot of the confusion stems from two competing realities - Musk's controversial view of free speech - anything goes at any time - but also the failure of the platform to make money.

VANCE: It's not been a very profitable business throughout its existence. And so you can see the layoffs as a step to try to make money. You know, on the other side, he's already banning people while telling us this was all about free speech. So it's a bit confusing. I think at the moment it's a bit of just throwing things on the wall, seeing what sticks and, you know, kind of just winging it a bit.

MARTIN: The Twitter takeover has played out like a classic train wreck, but is that all there is to the story? Could there be a method to Musk's madness? And what does it mean for the rest of us? What does the future of Twitter hold for tens of millions of users with more at stake than financial gain?

TIMOTHY LEE: I think Musk just has a management style where he manages to get pretty good results in the long run, despite a lot of short-run chaos.

MARTIN: Timothy Lee writes for the technology, economics and public policy newsletter Full Stack Economics. A few days into the Twitter tumult, he wrote an article for Slate called "The Case That Elon Musk Knows Exactly What He's Doing At Twitter." It's a headline that seems surprising in the current moment, and he concedes that as events continue to unfold, it does sound a little overconfident.

LEE: I was not impressed by the way he handled the layoffs. They're very fast and seem pretty erratic, so I'm a little less bullish on him than I was when I wrote the piece a week ago.

MARTIN: Still, Lee points out that in the past, Musk has weathered similar storms on the way to success.

LEE: In 2018, Teslas had a very chaotic period when they were just launching the Model 3 and having trouble kind of ramping it up. And at the same time, Musk had this ill-considered tweet where he said he had funding, he could Tesla private, which turned out not to be true. He also referred to a cave rescuer in Thailand as a pedo guy, which led to a defamation lawsuit. And so we have these kind of self-inflicted errors.

MARTIN: Lee says Musk pushed past those errors, and the success of Tesla today is undeniable.

LEE: Yeah. And I think it really revolutionized the auto industry because you have all these other conventional car companies kind of scrambling to catch up to Tesla.

MARTIN: And Lee also says that for a platform that's been creatively stagnant for the last several years, Musk's changes could be welcome.

LEE: So I think what we're going to see and what we're seeing already is much faster pace of experimentation, much more rapid changes in the site.

MARTIN: But profit-driven experimentation is one thing if the product is rocket ships and cars. But Twitter is about something else. It's about individuals expressing themselves and creating community. It's become a space of virtual neighborhoods where people gather for communication, communion and activism. So what happens if people think Elon Musk is threatening to tear down their neighborhood? Meredith Clark has been thinking a lot about this.

MEREDITH CLARK: Among Black Twitter, I see people saying, nope, we're staying. We're digging in our heels. We've been on this platform. We've contributed so much to it that we've made it valuable in the way that it is today.

MARTIN: Clark is an associate professor in journalism and communications studies at Northeastern University, and she's the author of a forthcoming book on Black Twitter.

CLARK: For a couple of days after Elon Musk first floated the idea of purchasing Twitter, I did think about leaving. But ultimately, I don't plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I'll be the last one to turn the lights off if that's what I need to be because I'm certainly not going either.

MARTIN: When we spoke, I started by asking Clark to tell us just what is Black Twitter.

CLARK: So there are two definitions. The complex one is that Black Twitter is a series of communities on Twitter made up of Black folks tweeting about issues of concern to people in Black communities. And the simple answer is black Twitter is Black people using Twitter and talking the way that Black folks do.

MARTIN: How would you say Black Twitter functions within the larger society? I mean, and I'm thinking specifically about the United States right now, but really, Black Twitter is global. How would you describe the impact of Black Twitter functioning within the larger culture?

CLARK: There are a number of places where I would trace Black Twitter's impact. Definitely with something like Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives, rather, where so many people were able to see how folks in different regions of the globe, different parts of the world and different parts of this country were connecting with one another to talk about racial justice issues. All of these conversations happening on the same platform at the same time around the world. The same is true for #MeToo and for so many other movements where there has been a Black person whose contributions have been overlooked, or perhaps the history has been distorted. So you see it in those instances.

MARTIN: So now we come to the present moment, you know, Elon Musk having been forced to complete his multibillion-dollar takeover of Twitter. What's your general reaction to what's going on with Twitter right now?

CLARK: My general reaction is that Twitter has fallen into the hands of someone who could afford to borrow enough to buy it and that that person wasn't fully prepared for the consequences of this purchase. It's become very clear to us that Elon Musk, as he floats these trial balloons by tweet about things like the verification process and whether parts of Twitter should be behind a paywall or whether there should be a subscription, that this wasn't a well-measured and well-considered approach to purchasing, or at least not managing this platform. At the same time, I'm also concerned about what that means as far as disrupting our information ecosystem since Twitter has become such a beacon for journalists and for individuals in different areas who are looking for information in real time.

MARTIN: You just pointed out something which is true - that Twitter has really kind of embedded itself in journalistic practice. On the other hand, it has also become a hotbed of terribleness. And a lot of that terribleness is directed at women. People who have other marginalized identities have been experiencing this all along. So with Musk's commitment to what he refers to as free speech - or he describes himself as a free speech absolutist - we've already seen, immediately after his takeover of the platform, that there was this surge of racist and misogynistic - I don't know what you want to call it - communications, right? So what do you make of that? And how is Black Twitter reacting to that?

CLARK: Well, one thing about what we're seeing right now is that while it may have ramped up with news of Musk's interest in the platform and then certainly with his purchase of the platform, that violence, that harassment has always been there, and it's always been part of being on this platform and the experience of being there. So what I make of it is that unfortunately, for whatever reason, those bad actors on the platform see some sort of affinity with Elon Musk. And in the same way that Musk is not making a distinction between access and the ability to post on the platform and free speech in its legal definition, those folks feel like they also have the ability to collapse the context around what it means to have freedom of speech. And they are distorting it to say that that means you can say and basically do anything.

MARTIN: So again, talking about how Black Twitter's reacted to that, I've seen some people are leaving. Some high-profile individuals have already left. And there are also people saying we're not going anywhere because this belongs to us as much as it belongs to any of these people. Racism and trolling is nothing new. We're not going anywhere. What - do you see a dominant response to this so far? I know it's hard to judge something like that when, like, there are literally millions of people using the platform. But what do you see so far?

CLARK: Well, from my perspective, I look out at the neighborhoods that I inhabit on Twitter. And among Black Twitter, I see people saying, nope, we're staying. We're digging in our heels. We've been on this platform. We've contributed so much to it that we've made it valuable in the way that it is today. We've made it an asset, and so no, we're not going anywhere. And then I see other people, honestly, who have more privilege, a number of academics who are saying, nope, we're going somewhere else. We're leaving for other platforms.

But I do really think that there are limits to those relationships because there aren't many platforms that allow many speakers to talk to one another all at the same time in the same place. My use hasn't changed all that much. I don't plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I'll be the last one to turn the lights off if that's what I need to be, because I'm certainly not going either.

MARTIN: In fact, you wrote an op-ed in theGrio saying that no matter what happens to Twitter, Black Twitter will still exist even without Twitter as a platform. Now, for those who haven't seen it yet, that seems contradictory. Can you explain what you mean by that?

CLARK: Certainly. It seems contradictory if we're only focusing on Black Twitter as a group of people on a platform. But if you think about the history of Black communication in this country, then you can very easily trace how Black folks have used every technological medium available to us to talk to one another, to get out messages, often to contradict mainstream reporting on Black communities. So everything from Freedom's Journal, the first newspaper published by free Black men in the U.S. in 1827, to startups and things that folks like Sherrell Dorsey and the creator of kweliTV, these people are doing in order to get information out and to source information from our communities where we see it's not being reported or talked about elsewhere.

MARTIN: So before I let you go, now that you've had some days to think about the implications of Musk's ownership and all the things that he says he's going to do and the way this amplifies elements that, frankly, have been very dedicated to anti-Blackness and to hostility toward people who have been historically underrepresented or part of historically marginalized identities - you've already said that you think that that space will continue even without Twitter. But how? Like, what does that look like?

CLARK: It evolves in the same way that, you know, we had the Harlem Renaissance, and the medium of the time were novels and poetry and music. And then we've got this evolution, you know, far down the line into something like hip-hop as another evolutionary form of expression. We've been on web 2.0 for a while, and we've been able to express with and across territories with one another. I think the next thing that we will see will be a creation that comes out of our communities, perhaps using new technologies. Maybe we'll be creating really cool things in the metaverse. It might be something that comes offline, and maybe we dig deep into what we can do in our physical communities. I can't say that I know for sure, but I do know that the creative power of Black people cannot be duplicated, and it cannot be extinguished. So I'm looking forward to seeing what we come up with next.

MARTIN: Meredith Clark is an associate professor in journalism and communication studies at Northeastern University in Boston, and she's the author of the forthcoming "We Tried To Tell Y'all: Black Twitter And The Rise Of Digital Counternarratives." And at least for now, she's still on Twitter. Professor Clark, thanks so much for talking to us.

CLARK: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.