Ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter and, for lack of many better words, fucked around and found out, plenty of alternative platforms have volunteered as tribute to take its place. There’s Mastodon, the too-complicated-to-use option; Bluesky, the exclusive (for now) option; Threads, Zuckerberg’s 360-deal option; and one more that has been largely overshadowed by the launch of Threads on Wednesday: Spill, the Black option.
Created by two Black former Twitter employees, Alphonzo “Phonz” Terrell and DeVaris Brown, Spill launched in June but gained further traction within the past week in light of Musk’s decision to set rate limits that cap how many tweets unverified Twitter users are allowed to see per day. The rate limits are the latest in a tiresome line of Muskian changes toward a more restricted Twitter that is focused on money-based tiers of usership. Obviously, this makes for an even less accessible Twitter than the one before, which was already inhospitable to its own “culture drivers,” a phrase used by Terrell to invoke the two main groups that maintain the relevancy of Twitter but aren’t well protected on the platform: the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.
Spill, still in invite-code-required beta testing and limited to Apple users, is a predominantly visual app, which makes for a stark contrast with the original idea of Twitter as a public text-messaging platform. The idea of Spill, according to its site, is a “visual conversation at the speed of culture.” It consists of image cards of photos, videos, or GIFs with your message, limited to 90 characters, overlaid on top. These are called “spills.” (The name comes from the expression “Spill the tea,” slang that emerged from Black and gay communities and means “give us the gossip.”) The idea, as you can see from the examples above, is to keep it short, sweet, and, ideally, deeply relatable or funny or both. The comments function the same way: a 90-character spill in the comments of the original spill. If you want more textual space, you can thread your spills by creating more than one image card that a user would have to tap through, like an Instagram carousel with graphic text overlaid. You can find spills on specific topics by using hashtags like #BookSpill or #MusicSpill.
As of right now, no doubt aided by its invite-only status, Spill is a very Black space. The vibe is like a private hangout for Black Twitter transplants. There are the jokes and memes, but with less news and fewer opportunities to casually scroll past racism. At the moment, Spill being predominantly Black feels freeing. It releases the Black online community from the stress of the interloping gaze from non-Black users, readjusting the idea of what Black performativity is online. However, it is inefficient as a solitary platform to post on. It’s nice to have a separate space for Black folks to debrief on the tomfoolery of the world around them, but Spill’s character limit makes it difficult to do some things that are easy on Twitter, like really engage in discourse or share further information via news articles or other posts. To share news on Spill, you would have to rework the article’s headline, and the character limit leaves no room for context or opinion. Not to mention, it’s a lot easier to comment on things on Twitter, since that is still where a lot of things actually happen.
But maybe this is a good thing? Limited room for text may mean limited room for engaging in discourse, but it also means limited room for bullshit. And when it comes to bullshit specifically of the racist or homophobic variety, Spill’s creators are extremely clear: They don’t want it. They’d like to foster a space where the same goading questions that cycle through Black Twitter every month, resulting in maddening, useless (and often misogynistic) discourse, won’t thrive. You know, questions like “Who should eat dinner first, your man or the kids?” or “Would you split things 50/50 with your man?” So far, Spill’s safe-space initiative isn’t all talk. Spill has tapped April Reign, DEI advocate and creator of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, as an adviser.
The app’s message of maintaining a respectful climate was strong enough to empower its users to bully the Shade Room—an incredibly popular Black blog that purposefully dishes inflammatory news, an approach that often results in misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic discourse in the comments section of its posts and on Twitter—off the platform. In their comments on its posts, Spill users pressured the Shade Room to leave the app, and when the blog used Spill’s poll feature to ask whether they should delete their account? After thousands of votes, the answer was a resounding yes. This is an incredibly big feat, given that the Shade Room, as toxic as it is, is considered such a core pillar of Black online culture that even Barack Obama has used it to ask people to vote.
The ousting of the Shade Room is also a good sign that Spill might avoid the fate of its sort-of predecessor, Clubhouse, the voice-based app that allowed people to have vocal discussions about particular topics. (Twitter basically copied this format with Twitter Spaces.) For a period of time in 2020, Clubhouse was an app where many Black people launched specific forums on various topics from relationships to music. However, the app disintegrated into a hellscape as it suffered from a lack of content moderation, which resulted in too many offensive and tired conversations. Many Black Twitter members are afraid that Spill will devolve in just the same way.
How long will Spill be able to give a voice to the right people? Or, rather, be a place for the right people? It’s hard to ignore the ways Spill is limiting (for now, anyway). Viral Twitter jokes like this one, commenting on Wednesday’s scandal in which beloved actress Keke Palmer’s partner publicly slut-shamed her on Twitter, couldn’t exist on the platform due to the character limit, even if they are (as this one is) positive, feminist, funny, and entirely in the style of a Black meme. If you were watching all of this drama go down online Wednesday night like I was, it was clear that the majority of Black commentary on cultural events is still happening on Twitter. Of course, a large part of this is due to the fact that Spill isn’t open to the entire public, but it was shocking to see the relative lack of Palmer-related chat on Spill at the time.
There are two large questions looming in the distance. The first is whether or not the Twitter vs. Threads battle will overshadow Spill’s existence. Threads is already showing strong signs of actually putting up a good fight with Twitter. Threads’ launch, mere days after Spill started to gain widespread recognition from journalists and users, was unfortunate for Spill. It was clear that Threads had all but demolished the word-of-mouth momentum that Spill had earned over the past week or so. This is a strong and frightening indicator of Spill’s future, though not a definitive sign of doom. But Spill should be cautious of where it fits in the Threads vs. Twitter narrative and how it can maintain its place within the conversation, or it will certainly get left behind.
The second is what happens to the safe, Black community on Spill when it opens to everyone? Spill’s creators have said that their intention is to make an app that is hospitable to everyone, but will non-Black people migrate over to it after it’s out of beta? As difficult as it is to see Spill as a panacea to the woes of being Black online, it’s even more difficult to ignore the fact that, though imperfect, a space like Spill is desperately needed. Black people and queer people deserve a space to share, discuss, create, and coexist amongst ourselves. We deserve a space where we don’t have to worry about seeing our phrases misappropriated on the same app five months later, or watching people with more social capital steal our fashion, music, and dances and pass them off as their own. If Spill does become more diverse, what is lost in forgoing a Black-only space? When more people have access, just how hard will misogyny and homophobia put up a fight to be let in? If it stays small, considering the familiarity of Twitter and the imminent dominance of Threads, can it survive?