book excerpt

I Tried to Be Twitter-Famous

Despite how much I failed, I was convinced I needed to be if I ever wanted to make my mark on the literary world.

Shayla Lawson Photo: Nicholas Nichols
Shayla Lawson Photo: Nicholas Nichols

I did. Not hard. More like the way I learned all the steps to the dance break in Sisqó’s “Thong Song,” watching the BET Countdown every day after school for as long as the song charted. I was ready—in case the song ever played in the high school cafeteria—to shuffle toward an imaginary dance floor as soon as I heard That girl so scandalous, like my white JNCOs were full of sand. I pretended I’d end the sequence trying to land a backflip, knowing that I never could. I never practiced my moves in the mirror but I thought I looked good. If you ever watched me dance in the noughties, though, you’d know that, no matter how much I aimed for video vixen, I looked like Jack Skellington, a thin, dark fantasy battling the top of a helical hill. All limbs and rhythm and no direction. This is me on Twitter.

I first heard about Twitter around 2008. I was at an MTV taping of a Making the Band reunion special at a studio in Times Square. I’d been writing freelance articles for a culture blog and the girl who usually covered the hip-hop beat was sick, so I’d been armed with her questions, her press pass, and a digital camera. (I didn’t own an iPhone, the smartphone was still in generation one.)

The press box was a who’s who of hip black bloggers, none of whom I’d ever met, in impeccably curated outfits and twist-outs. I’d just moved to Brooklyn from Kentucky with a pair of well-worn cowboy boots and skinny starter-locks. Though I’d barely learned what a MySpace page was, MySpace was already irrelevant, and I had never really watched reality television. As the A-list bloggers tapped away madly at their phones, I scanned the box for a conversational ally, and saw a girl with a spiral notebook smile at me. Busy night, I said, gesturing toward the in-crowd. She rolled her eyes. We talked a bit more before I felt comfortable enough to expose my ignorance. What are they doing? I asked.

Oh, she said, surprised. They’re all on Twitter.

Diddy came out on stage to the sound of dancehall air horns and his own eponymous song. He hopped from one side of the stage to the other, convulsing in a Harlem Shake. He catapulted wads of black T-shirts that read NO BITCHASSNESS from a cannon. The crowd loved it. The Young, Black, and Bloggerful posted live tweet after live tweet on their iPhones. I watched them while everyone else watched Making the Band. I tried to pretend like I fit in, pulling out my Blackberry and furiously live-texting my sister. From that point on, Twitter has always been a place for a swag I do not carry. When I say swag, I mean I can’t pull off a Sisqó backflip. When I say “Twitter,” I mean Black.

Black Twitter is the place where Twitter goes to have a social life: the coolness of black culture reconstructed in memes, social insights, and pop culture commentary. Black Twitter has, essentially, become Twitter. I say this as someone whose job it used to be to write social media content for agencies whose client lists included Nike, Adidas, and Google. My first day on one new job, I sat down to read the company’s onboarding materials—a roster of strategic data collected about every viable social media platform, including Twitter. What was listed for its demographic? “95 percent Smart Black People.” I wondered about the polling data and percentages that delineated how many “smart black people” were on Twitter when none of the other social media platforms included a metric for race. I wondered about the implications of a company’s onboarding materials calling for the exploitation of smart Negroes. But I needed a paycheck. I sat through multiple PowerPoint presentations whose title slides incorporated gifs of Oprah and scenes from Blackish. I sat through creative brainstorms where white folks suggested we turn some big company’s new product into the “Bye, Felicia” of products. (I still don’t know what that means.) When I say “Twitter” is Black Twitter, I’ve collected the receipts.

Even before it was my job to know Twitter, I studied it like a groupie. I did this the same way I approached black barbecues and house parties I was way too awkward to be at—standing in the back, pantomiming the slick dance moves I saw other people do, waiting to practice them later in the privacy of my own room. I didn’t know all the words to the hit songs but tried to come in real strong at the harmonies. I used to consider Twitter an online version of a black Greek banquet, an HBCU homecoming where everyone except me knows the right things to say. Where everyone is gorgeously aloof and perfectly pressed. Because I’d spent years feeling like this kind of outsider in my extended family, and really at every black social gathering, I wasn’t in a hurry to log on to a community in which my jokes were too slow, my pedicure too jacked, a place where it would be easy for people to call me out for the ways I wasn’t living up to black cool.

As is often the case with my insecurities, I know now I was wrong about those expectations of cool being all that Twitter had for me. If I go back to the MTV press box, I’m certain many of those kids still had the tags hidden inside their expensive jackets. Some of them were probably recent arrivals from the South or Midwest. Some were probably texting their sisters to look like they were going viral on Twitter, or live-tweeting to an audience of almost no one.

Had I understood years ago that Black Twitter was a house party invite I missed out on rather than a party nobody wanted me at, it might have been good for me. It’s a social common ground for everyone hip enough to get a house party invite, as well as their uncool cousins, as well as their aunties who live in rural Iowa with no other black people on their block. We mourned together. We watched Scandal together. We let people in on our inside jokes, our nerd cosplay, the quirky expressions that came out of our children’s mouths. We made our private lives public so that we could become more intimate with each other despite our physical distance.

I could have used Twitter when I was living in a small village in the Netherlands, listening to NPR on a small world band radio, when I heard that Trayvon Martin had been shot. I didn’t know any other African Americans there, and I deeply grieved both the loss of Trayvon and the loss of an America many of us had hoped Obama’s presidency would foster. I thought of Harlem, where I was living the night he was elected, and waking up the next morning to the streets still filled with ticker tape. Even when I found an empathetic ear in the Netherlands, it was lent to me in a different context, a different native language. It wasn’t the same. I needed more; an international network of black voices would have helped me.

Maybe I am a little wistful about missing out on Black Twitter’s earliest stages as an agent for communion and change. When I finally joined Twitter it was 2013, and my first poetry book was coming out. I was in an MFA program and the students in my cohort were using the platform to connect with small presses, journalists, editors, agents, and other writers, and I realized I should be doing the same.

Of course, it takes a lot of hubris to start a Twitter account in 2013 and think you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Twitter will humble you. The music is loud and the dancing is already in full swing and everyone has already clustered off to two-step or sway in their own little groups or watch two famous people breakdance battle in the middle of the living room. No matter how many people I thought I knew on Twitter, no matter how many poems and articles I had published, no matter how good of a writer I thought I was, the people of Twitter were in no hurry to become my audience. Although I’d secretly hoped my arrival on Twitter would generate a tiny ripple of excitement, I wasn’t offended when my following stayed low.

From the outside, Twitter can seem like a place where strangers will immediately validate you with two thousand “likes” just for listing what you had for breakfast, but that only happens when you have invested time in it—true for Twitter celebrities and bona fide celebrities alike. There are a lot of ways to become Twitter-famous, but it can be difficult for a late adopter to build up a following without developing a persona or brand, and without knowing the social behaviors. Many of the people who have gone viral have done so because they understand Twitter’s norms and have cultivated their followings accordingly. They’re the people you always expect to see on the Twitter dance floor.

That said, Twitter was a place where I could see what writers I admired were thinking without having to fan out in front of them obtrusively. I liked this path because it let me be quiet. I was there, on Twitter, but I didn’t feel the compulsion to become someone. My feed mostly consisted of me tweeting lines from books I read, “@ing” the authors as a citation. As my visibility grew a little as a poet, I started to feel the same pressure to be presentational on Twitter that I had back in 2008 texting my sister on my Blackberry while watching Making the Band.

It can be hard to tell if you meet me, but I suffer from pretty strong social anxiety. I survive my misgivings about always saying the wrong thing and trying to decode everyone’s micro-expressions by performing. I can exude confidence and charm and humor even when I don’t feel like it, especially with the buffer of a couple of cocktails. During a networking evening at a conference in Washington, DC, I ran into a group of well-known authors, some of them Twitter-famous. They found me engaging, in my moment of wit and jazz hands, and asked me for my Twitter handle. A few months later, I ran into one of those writers, an older white man, at an event in Portland. He told me he had stopped following me on Twitter. When I met you, I thought you were going to be interesting on Twitter, he said, but you aren’t. As a fan of his work, it hurt me. I thought I had made it. I thought exchanging Twitter handles meant we were now in each other’s orbits—like adding someone on LinkedIn or Facebook, a process that I was also late to adopt but found easier to comprehend.

Although I still look at Black Twitter with some awe for its early days, I am frustrated by how it has created yet another space in which black people are critiqued. As the platform has grown, I’ve watched mainstream media distill the candor and colloquialisms that gave the platform its black authenticity into a quaint minstrel show for whites. This version of Black Twitter manifests itself frequently. Black people are often exceptional cultural performers. Without noticing it, we code-switch into what we are told to be. For me, having a famous writer tell me I wasn’t interesting enough on Twitter read the same as him telling me I wasn’t enough. I didn’t understand then that he’d followed me so I would entertain him by performing my blackness, that I was supposed to use Twitter as a way to work toward his approval. This is the exact reason I avoided Twitter to begin with. I am always worried this is the way people feel when they read my feed.

I decided I needed to start flexing my Black Twitter swag, although I was still saying “swag” and had none. I created my best imitation of what an interesting black tweet should say. I sat at home trying to figure out how to turn my Twitter feed into a living journal of black inner thoughts. I was home alone listening to Sun Ra and Mozart, but I couldn’t tweet that I was home alone listening to Sun Ra and Mozart. So, I carefully prepared a tweet about how it’s hard for me to get down with a full Cardi B album because all her brags sound like how I felt the first time I got a job with dental. I posted the tweet and waited for the like count to go up—twenty people. Not only did I feel bad at Twitter, I felt like a fraud. What I had wanted to do that day was write an essay about how “Bodak Yellow” cuts through the narrative of mean-girl bullying with a vulnerability that makes my neck ache from bobbing “yes” so hard. I wanted to sit down and write that while listening to Sun Ra and Mozart. But I didn’t. Instead, I kept refreshing the “like” count, so fixated on the idea of having a cool idea I no longer felt the drive to explore it.

There is the type of writer who is brilliant at Twitter and then there is the type of writer who is, tweet-unfortunately, me. I am a highly social introvert—a personality type that is usually very good at Twitter as a medium—but I am also an internal processor. I’m not good at thinking through what I want to say by saying it. I might have witty thoughts, but I edit and overthink them before I can ever transcribe them and by that time the moment to tweet has fluttered away. I will never be the first one to have a clever thing to say on the hour—or multiple times on the hour if I’m live-tweeting a Diddy concert or the scandals of Olivia Pope.

Black Twitter is by no means a monolith. What I’m describing is one of the many ways people use the social platform to communicate. I’d be remiss, for instance, if I did not mention the number of offline political movements that began as hashtags: #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #MuteRKelly, #Dark- SkinRedLip. Black Twitter contains so many conversations of short-form liberation. But the part of Black Twitter that often lives on in infamy is its minstrelsy. That “95 percent Smart Black People” marketing demographic enmeshed in the white gaze. As a free public platform, Twitter provides mainstream culture unfettered access to black conversations when they have traditionally had to pay us to “be interesting” through concerts and movie tickets and cocktails. White culture sees the cool black party, and unlike me, they open the door and step right in. The problem isn’t that they want to join us. The problem is there is a difference between their allyship and their adoption of our viral gifs, hashtags, videos, and catchphrases to recognize them. They refuse to acknowledge the political damage this does to what we are saying. There is a massive difference between a white person hearting a gif of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance to show support for the visibility of women and a white person using a gif of Beyoncé smashing cars to highlight a white contribution to the feminist movement. One version of this conversation is Twitter alliance, the other is Twitter erasure. One version of this conversation supports Black Twitter, the other version of this conversation makes Black Twitter a meme.

Just as I will never understand the type of white person who tells me I don’t give good black person, I will never understand the type of white person who fetishizes Black Twitter. I do not understand how one relishes the opportunity to crash a house party, either not realizing or not caring about the imposition they create in an intimate space. At its most innocent, the insertion of the white gaze upon Black Twitter conversations results in a loss of engagement after @RainbowBriteWhite hops into the thread with a post she thinks is clever but completely misreads the conversation’s nuance. (Threads in which, it is important for @RainbowBriteWhite to understand, her “freedom of speech” has no relevance because it shuts down opportunities for other free-thinking people to communicate out of necessity, rather than a desperate attempt to stay socially relevant.) At its least innocent, the white gaze in Black Twitter spaces has created what’s known in online communities as “blackfishing,” white people who create personas to disguise themselves as black people—darkening their skin for photographs and mimicking black slang in their tweets to gain a larger following—a social media of Ariana Grandes. In some of Twitter’s worst moments, black people blackfish themselves—taking cues from the authentic style of popular black tweets to transform into cool black caricatures, hoping this derivative version of who we are may earn them a shot at viral fame—the new, digital blackface.

The appropriation of Black social creativity without proper attribution (and in cases as extreme as the adoption of Kayla Newman’s phrase “eyebrows on fleek,” without proper credit or compensation) is rampant, and carries a foreboding irony. Black people took to Twitter and Vine and YouTube and Instagram and blogs because the white mainstream media continued to relegate our stories to the sidelines. In response, we created an internet dialogue in which our stories were regularly featured, a platform where those of us with the talent to be journalists, influencers, and culture critics could make our own content. And as we laid a flag upon this lush digital country, with its hashtags and new nomenclature, white people—willing to recognize the power in our thoughts but not our thinkers—started moving in to colonize. Working in advertising, this reality was never lost on me: I, a non-tweeting black girl who went to graduate school to study poetry, was hired by a white company who stole from Black Twitter conversations to sell products rich white people would only buy if we talked about them like the actual Black Twitterers they refused to hire.

Despite how much I failed at Twitter, I was still convinced I needed to be Twitter-famous if I ever wanted to make my mark on the literary world, a world in which the popularity of your online persona often becomes a major factor in what your writing career looks like. I started working at a social media marketing agency because I saw the shift in the publishing market and thought it was the best way to learn how to build a better online presence for my second book. It wasn’t that I needed the book to succeed to support my ego. I was also pitching an essay collection (this essay collection) to big publishers, and my agent informed me some of the editors who had been interested passed because I didn’t have a large enough social media following. Perhaps this is too meta, but I’m sharing it because I was surprised this was something no one else had ever told me. I knew that models and reality TV celebrities needed to maintain large social media followings in order to get gigs these days, but I didn’t know that the same was true for poets and essayists. Even if it wasn’t the only factor in the success of my work, it was another way in which I saw myself as Twitter inadequate, and so I wondered if there was anything I could do to bolster my Twitter account.

You know, you could just buy followers, a white former colleague said over cocktails after I told her about my social media concerns as an author, looking very pleased with herself for having provided a solution to my problem. I saw a story about it on Dateline once. She took my phone from my hand and started scanning Twitter pages of authors with high follower counts. See, she said, you can tell a lot of these “people” who “ follow” them are bots. I didn’t care whether other authors’ followers were real or not. I wanted to appear Twitter-successful. I was putting myself in the mindset of being a marketing strategist for myself.

What my former colleague didn’t know was that I had already tried to buy followers. I felt sleazy about it, the same way I felt in middle school when I tried to stuff my bra. Even though I didn’t believe I was fooling anybody, I hated being the girl with the flat-chested Twitter account. Under the guise of studying up on brands that used fake follows for flash promotions and influencer accounts, I researched companies that sold follows as a side project at the social media agency. After weighing the options in terms of price and legitimacy, I finally selected the company that looked the least like a credit card scam. In addition to the Better Business Bureau logo at the bottom of its main page, it boasted the guarantee that all (which I generously interpreted as “some”) of the followers they offered though their site were real Twitter accounts—people who were paid a nominal fee to pretend like they were interested in their clients’ social media accounts. I hovered my mouse over the options for what my new Twitter following should look like. 10k. 5k. I finally settled on a modest one thousand. I wanted it to look like my following had grown, but I didn’t want the growth to seem phishy. The website asked if I wanted to opt-in to a feature in which my new followers would also scroll through my old tweets and bolster them with likes. Why, how thoughtful, I said to myself, daydreaming how to introduce me to my newly acquired throng of real and imaginary followers.

How long would it take to become Twitter-famous? The company’s FAQ page said about a week. I spent the next ten days filling my Twitter account with my thoughts on eating meat, J. Cole’s latest album, waking up in the morning, and hoping I didn’t get frostbite after stepping in a puddle in my Doc Martens. I @’ed every product I mentioned and celebrity I wrote about, hoping the added name recognition might help my musings go viral. When nothing happened on the eleventh day, I reached out to the customer service department, convinced I’d been duped.

We tried to fulfill your request, miss, said the patient customer service agent, but we couldn’t find enough followers who would willingly seed your account. We will try again in two to three days. If we don’t succeed, we’ ll give you a refund.

They gave me a refund. I couldn’t even pay people to follow me.

I have not yet become Twitter-famous. Twitter is a battle I have tried to fight and have lost in so many ways. But I think that’s alright. Although social media is filled with commercialism and fake representation, my experiences with Twitter convince me there still exists within it an authentic space. It may never be mine, but if I don’t earn the right to be listened to, to dance and talk with people, that’s okay. Perhaps I still haven’t figured out yet, out there, what I want to say. But if you’re out there, too, maybe we can talk about it.

Twitter at me, America.



Excerpted with permission from the book This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dopeto be published by Harper Perennial on June 30.

I Tried to Be Twitter-Famous