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The challenges of accurately archiving Black Twitter

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Whether it's barbecuing while Black or Black Lives Matter, discourse in the real world often starts on Twitter. Black Twitter has been a force since the platform launched. It is a dynamic network of users that Northeastern University's Meredith Clarke has been studying for years and that she's now trying to archive, as Twitter's future appears uncertain.

Meredith Clark joins me now. Thanks for being here.

MEREDITH CLARK: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: So I want to ask you a question, but I feel like it's one that anybody I ask might have a different answer. How do you define Black Twitter?

CLARK: Ah, yes. You are correct in saying that. I define Black Twitter as a network of culturally linked communicators who are using the platform to talk about issues of concern to Black life and in Black life.

SUMMERS: You have said that preserving Black Twitter will allow for a more accurate and complex retelling of the history of the internet. Do you think that history has been oversimplified in the past?

CLARK: Oh, absolutely. It's been oversimplified in the past, and the complication that we have is not oversimplifying it as we do this work. It's impossible to collect the whole of Black Twitter or even to attempt to distill the essence of Black Twitter. So what we're going to have is a collection of what are called small histories. And they are parts and pieces of what has happened in this place and time, but they are not the end-all-be-all of Black Twitter. And so it's a very delicate balance of not essentializing what we know of this experience, but also making sure that it is accurately preserved for the record.

SUMMERS: What is the power of that preservation of those small stories that you're talking about there?

CLARK: The power of that preservation is making sure that accurate narratives are told. There are so many instances where people might have forgotten about the truth of how something unfolded. One that sticks out in my mind is that, recently, there was coverage that made reference to Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, signing legislation to take down the Confederate flag over that state's Capitol following the massacre of the Emanuel Nine. And I took issue with that reporting because it erased the work of Bree Newsome and her comrades in actually scaling the flagpole at the state Capitol and taking that flag down. And without the witnessing that folks were able to do on Twitter, that narrative might be lost. And I think that that is just one reflection of many stories that require us to have plenty of evidence to make sure that they are told correctly.

SUMMERS: I mean, when I'm hearing you describe that incident, which I remember well, with Bree Newsome and others taking that flag down, I mean, it sounds like part of the goal in the work that you're doing here is really to make sure that Black people ourselves are documented and understood accurately and with intention.

CLARK: And more so that we get to tell our own stories. Again, I'm working with collaborators and invite collaborators to this project. You know, there's a version of Black Twitter that I can talk about, that I've written about, that I study. But everyone who is a part of Black Twitter has a perspective on it. And by that regard, they have something to offer. And I think it's really important that people see themselves in the storytelling.

SUMMERS: Meredith, you've been doing this work for some time, and you started it before Elon Musk took over Twitter as a platform, which has raised concerns, I think, for some users about the utility of the platform and, frankly, whether or not they'll choose to continue on it. Does that takeover and the changing dynamics of Twitter itself add more urgency to the work that you're doing?

CLARK: It does. It almost adds a sense of desperation. At this point, Twitter is now reaching out to researchers who have large-scale Twitter datasets and, in some cases, asking them to delete that data. And if that data is deleted, then it leaves those of us who study this grasping for information and grasping for records.

SUMMERS: Meredith Clark is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Northeastern University. She is launching the Archiving Black Twitter project. Meredith, thank you so much.

CLARK: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: And NPR reached out to Twitter about requests that researchers delete large-scale datasets in some cases. We received a poop emoji in response. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.