"We've been doing that to survive": "Black Twitter" filmmaker on Black culture repurposing spaces

Director Prentice Penny on his new docuseries about the coming-of-age story of an influential online community

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 15, 2024 1:58PM (EDT)

Prentice Penny (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Prentice Penny (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Why did you first join Twitter? For TV writer and director Prentice Penny, he joined Twitter as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, looking for team updates like trades, injuries and potential draft picks. It was years before he would become showrunner of the Peabody Award-winning HBO series "Insecure," starring Issa Rae. It was the glory days of Black Twitter — a home on the social media platform for fun and connection with a bigger community who could relate to Penny's Black experience as a fan and an artist.

When I talked to Penny ahead of his latest project, the Hulu documentary series "Black Twitter," I asked him what was special to him about Twitter. Why was it easier to connect with strangers on Twitter than real-life friends on Facebook? “On Twitter you get to see if somebody is funny, if somebody is snarky, if somebody is really smart.” Penny said. “You get to see people's kind of the way they think.” Penny continued, “And I think that becomes much more of an interesting person to want to meet than just seeing a picture and not knowing what's happening here.” 

“Black Twitter" is based on Jason Parham’s Wired article “A People’s History of Black Twitter." In the series, Penny chronicles Black Twitter's rise by talking to some of the biggest users on the platform, viral hashtags that launched careers like #BlackGirlMagic and #OscarsSoWhite, and the role Twitter played in making TV shows with Black female leads like "Scandal" and "Insecure" into cult classics. And then, the downfall of Twitter and how the world was shocked when Elon Musk took over the app and changed the name to X, which both Penny and I still refuse to use.

Even though Penny got his start as a TV writer on shows like "Girlfriends," "Scrubs" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" before the app blew up, he acknowledges the role Twitter played in securing his spot and taking his work to the next level. I also owe a great deal of my success to Twitter as my early Salon articles spread, getting into the hands of people who would have never come across my work. Now, many of us rarely log on to the app, if we log on at all.

One of the open questions I had for Penny revolves around creating a new space for Black creatives to launch their ideas, find community and offer support. Will a platform that already exists replace it, or do we have to unite as a collective and figure it out? Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Prentice Penny here on YouTube, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about what he learned about Twitter culture while working on the project and his ideas on what will be the next safe space for Black creatives.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

When I first heard there was a Black Twitter documentary coming out, I slipped right back into nostalgia because it was a moment in time. I couldn't stop laughing. And I just thought about the amount of information I learned and how I grew as a person. How did this project come about for you?

It started with Jason Parham, the journalist, who wrote the piece for Wired Magazine. And he wrote the piece because he felt like so many things on the internet are impermanent, right? Here today, going tomorrow. Talk about like Friendster and Vine and sort of MySpace all these things. And he felt it was the right amount of time to give Black Twitter its flowers and document all the things that had happened culturally on the platform, not just for our culture, but for American culture. And once the article came out, they brought it to me to see if I'd be interested in directing it as a docuseries.

For me, using it was like I had tapped into another universe like I’m clearly not the smartest person in the room and I'm here to learn. I think of Ferrari Shepherd who's killing it in the art game right now, Bassey World, Feminista Jones, Encyclopedia Brown.

That's what I think is so dope about Twitter specifically that I think made the communities pop off is to your point where Facebook was really about reconnecting with friends you went to high school with or family members. Twitter was like, "Meet these strangers," which I think Black culture is always having to do with, just get out of our comfort zone to meet people. And I think the natural way we have to move in the world just kind of moved digitally as well. I think that's how those communities kind of got built.

How did you find Black Twitter?

Well, I'm from LA, so I was a Laker fan. So I kind of came on '08, '09 when Kobe was trying to get the championships without Shaq. So I was just trying to see what's going on with the Lakers. What are we hearing? Who are we going to get? And that was really them being on there, following other players, following other analysts. And then who are they retweeting, who are they posting? That's kind of funny. That's interesting.

I think what's so magical and special just about the docuseries is this world that developed inside of another world. It's almost like the people who made Twitter didn't know what to do with it. Black Twitter grew and it created a language that was adapted by everyone.

We talk about this in the doc that Facebook was very clear of what it was trying to be. Twitter, all the different guys that created it, Jack [Dorsey] and Biz [Stone] and those guys kind of didn't ever agree on what this platform is. Is it a blogging space? Is it a news space? Is it information sharing? Is it a podcasting space? And because it was so pliable, as Black people do and Black culture does, we can repurpose. 

We've been doing that to survive in this country forever. So we're good at taking things that weren't meant for certain things and redoing them into things that work for us. The pliability of the platform fed into our natural creativity in terms of how we repurpose things.

I'm glad you said repurpose because it's like you wear your older brother's shoes that are two sizes too big, and then Balenciaga sees it as something brand new. Let's make a 10X sneaker that no one can fit, not even Shaq.

Well, I think about guys too, back in the day in hip-hop, like Dapper Dan, right?


Who now is getting his flowers. Obviously he's doing these collabs with Gucci. But back then it was like he was just doing that because he's taking Gucci or Louis [Vuitton] and redoing them in so many ways. And like you said, now it's like, "Oh, we need to be partnering up with that."

Shout out to Dap. You have some excellent people in the series, the great April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. You have journalist Wesley Lowery. Can you talk about some of the subjects you chose for the film?

Some started from the article. As I read his article, it was broken down into three parts. And so as a storyteller, to me that was a three-act structure. It kind of became a coming-of-age story. Because as a narrative, I'm always like, "But what's the story?" If you can just Google it, that's not a story. That's just information. 

There's sort of this youth of Black Twitter. If you think about coming-of-age stories, we talked about Star Wars a lot as a reference point of Luke in the beginning doesn't know anything about the rebellion or The Force. He doesn't know anything about being a Jedi. And then obviously Obi-Wan dies, and it takes our hero into a darker world and a much more challenging environment. For us, that was similar. 

Black Twitter's having its fun. We're talking about “Scandal,” we're live-tweeting, and then Trayvon happened and so it takes the story into a different direction. And so for us, it was who are the people that can speak to Black Twitter becoming a coming-of-age story? So all of that started to shape, okay, are we talking about Trayvon? Are we talking about #OscarsSoWhite? Are we talking about Verzuz? Are we talking about how we dealt with the pandemic? And so everything had to sort of fit the coming-of-age story in the topics.

What surprised you while having those conversations with all of those different people about that particular era?

I think the things that really surprised me were really the more so the people that we talked to that were working at Twitter. Of just knowing how they didn't really know. I understand how mainstream culture doesn't really understand Black culture and understands how kind of what Black Twitter would be. But I guess you thought of the people at Twitter understood clearly what's happening on this platform. And to kind of learn they didn't really know what's happening on Black Twitter or why is “Scandal” getting all these sort of huge numbers? Why are they trending so much? 

And so for them, they really had to go in there and educate the platform on what's happening over here. And so I think I was really surprised at how much Twitter itself didn't know what was happening on Twitter itself.

Yeah, that's amazing. Was there anyone you wanted in the film, but you couldn't get a hold of?

The one person that we wanted in the film that we just couldn't time-wise out was Kerry Washington. And I think obviously we talk about the way “Scandal” sort of grew, not just in numbers out of that show, but really how live-tweeting was kind of birthed out of that show.

I was always wanting to know what did it feel like to be kind of the first person where the Black Twitter culture is supporting you, showing up for you? And having that be impacting the way that the show's ratings go, which impact how long the show gets to be on the air. So being the first person where that was sort of a thing was someone I was like, oh, I'd like to know what it was from her perspective as opposed to just the culture's perspective.

For you, working in television and being on the production side, were you thinking about the impact social media could have on the stories you were trying to tell? There were some really big “Insecure” conversations on Twitter.

Oh, 100%.

It was Team Lawrence. It was Team Issa. 

Yeah. It's so funny. I remember obviously working on the show from the beginning, and we weren't anything. Nobody knew what we were. And then to watch, I remember Season 2. I remember going to Twitter during the premiere at some point, and I remember seeing all of the Top 10 things that were trending, we were like seven, seven of those topics, like Team Lawrence, Team Daniel, Issa. And I was like, this is wild that we're dominating the conversation right now more than “Game of Thrones.” That’s what was wild.

Because the audience is there. And every once in a while the big production companies need to know that if you buy these shows, the community is there.

We'll show up.

One thing about using Twitter is you wanted to meet your Twitter people. Do you feel that way?

I agree with you. I think there's something. Because Twitter, you have to be speaking. I mean, you're typing, but you're speaking so different than Instagram, which is a picture, which could kind of be anything. But I think in Twitter you get to see: Is somebody funny? Is somebody snarky? Is somebody really smart? You get to see people's kind of the way they think. And I think that becomes a much more of an interesting person to want to meet than just seeing a picture and not knowing what's happening here.

Something you covered that is very important for a lot of us, is the amount of talent that emerged from Black Twitter. And I was just thinking, do you ever think there will be another vehicle for producing Pulitzer Prize winners, Emmy Award winners, executives from an app? Or have we moved on from that moment? Because so many people just got so many great opportunities.

Of course. Yeah, absolutely. I don't know. I think it's one of those things where we've been talking, Jason and I, about is, it going to happen somewhere else? Is it? And I don't think so. I think that the way Black Twitter happened was such a convergence of Obama era. This platform is so pliable. There was a lot of things in the world we needed to say. Where I think it served its function on Twitter. I love seeing Black Twitter's energy in the real world.

What that shakes, I don't even know what the next way that it happens will even be social media. Because again, we weren't seeking it out to happen on Twitter. It just sort of happened because all these things kind of met. So to me, it's like almost trying to predict another big cultural moment. I don't think just another app is the way it's going to happen.

Black Twitter feels like it started to decline for a lot of us even before Elon Musk took over, not just because of the bots, but because of just some of the craziness. For a moment, we had this golden era of beautiful article recommendations, beautiful television and film commentary and recommendations. We were actually holding different cultures accountable as a collective online. But then it kind of turned into this place of where everyone wanted to over-police everything. And I think a lot of people started staying away. It turned into something different than that golden era. Was it kind of over for you or begin to decline after the takeover, or was this already something happening?

I mean, I think any time millions of people get on an app that you can certainly over-police and also under-police and under-protect. And I think there was a lot of things happening in terms of the way Black women were being targeted. The way it sort of felt unsafe for Black women at that time too. And so I think there were ways in which a lot of people started to pull back. And I think in general also understanding maybe we're spending too much time on social media. You know what I mean? 

"Black Twitter's having is fun. We're talking about 'Scandal,' we're live-tweeting, and then Trayvon happened and so it takes the story into a different direction."


And making sure our mental health was okay. So I think a lot of things were converging again on like do we need to be on apps as much? Do we need to be on social media as much? And I think we were starting to see a lot of people pull back just in general. And I think all of those factors also led to people being like, this doesn't feel like the same fun and nostalgic space that it felt like in the beginning. I think all those things led to it, but I think you feel a huge different shift when Elon took over the platform.

Being a documentarian versus a narrative storyteller for TV audiences watch these projects in different ways. They also carry different responsibilities for you. How do you see yourself as an artist in both categories?

In the narrative space, you're saying whatever comes out of your imagination and that is the most important thing. This is my first time doing anything in the doc space. And I think the difference to me is it's not about everything that's in. Your creativity is the most important thing. It's like what's the story to the truth of the piece you're talking about? And are you honoring that in truth? 

Less almost putting myself on it and moreso letting the subject matter dictate to me what the story should be. As opposed to me saying, "Oh, the story should be about, for example, Issa doing this or Issa doing that." This story is telling me this is where the story needs to go versus me imparting my opinion on where the story should go.

What are your thoughts on the next thing? We have the Black-owned Spill app, for example. And we have Threads. But are we going to be able to create this space on a different platform? Or is it something that just happened?

I think you'll see different platforms just because I think different people want different things. So I think Spill would be one. I think obviously Bluesky and Mastodon. I think these places have grown and continue to grow. But I think as Jason talked about, he was like, people have left – I can't call it X – people have left Twitter. But by and large, Black people are still on the platform actually. I think that's what Black Twitter got to be. We got to be like, we're doing our thing here, but we also like being in the mainstream conversation too. 

I don't think Black culture ever wants to be told, you have to only talk about this, or you have to only play over here. I think we want to play in all of it. So I don't know if, again, just another app can fully capture that moment. Or capture like, oh, we're all going to go here now. Because again, we're not a monolith either. So I'd be curious to see where all this stuff shakes out. It's interesting because I have teenagers, and they're not on any of those things. They're all like TikTok kids, so even where that's going to be, right?

I did feel a moment of the old Twitter coming back and seeing people who I haven't seen in years on the app with the Kendrick and Drake beef. I was about to say J. Cole, but he –

He bowed out.

He took the mental health route.

Yeah, I think you do see Black Twitter showing up even when the Alabama brawl happened.

They showed up.

So that's why they're like, "Oh, we're still there. We're just not there in the way that it was there in that moment." Because obviously there's moments in which the fun of “Scandal” and those kind of shows, but then there are ways that we had to show up obviously during the civil unrest stuff that was happening at such a huge moment and so frequently. There was this level of, oh, we got to stay on guard. I think you definitely see it show up in Black cultural moments.

We’re missing “Insecure.” So we want to know what else are you coming with? We're sending you back to work.

We have some stuff coming out. This summer, I'm doing a pilot for Onyx.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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