Existing online as a Black woman is not an easy task. From white women cosplaying as us on Instagram (known as Blackfishing) to unadulterated misogynoir constantly thrown our way, it is no surprise that Black women seek out safe spaces within these platforms. One such refuge was the Twitter account of the now-disgraced social media influencer, @EmoBlackThot.
The fictitious world that EmoBlackThot created came to light on October 11, 2019, when it was revealed here on PAPER that the beloved account was not in fact run by a young Black woman, as it was believed, but instead by 23-year-old Isaiah Hickland, a cis Black male.
EmoBlackThot was trusted on Twitter. With just under 180,000 followers, the EmoBlackThot account fostered a community, especially among Black women, who felt welcomed by tweets condemning racism, supporting Black female artists like Megan Thee Stallion and encouraging daily self-care rituals like drinking water and washing one's face. EmoBlackThot even made sure that they got people to donate to their followers through a #CashAppFriday initiative.
However, none of it was true.
EmoBlackThot's brand didn't come out of nowhere. The key inspiration behind the account seems to be the online personality Nicole Milfie, created by the late Taylor Crenshaw, who spearheaded an almost identical subsection of Twitter known as 'Hoe Twitter.' For many, Milfie's Twitter was a haven for conversations about race, mental health, sexuality and Black womanhood.
After Milfie's passing in 2016, she was memorialized with her signature cherry emoji, and not long after her death, her influence over the current landscape of Twitter became clear. While Milfie was a key influence behind what many deem today to be 'Cherry Emoji Twitter,' rarely is she credited for her cultural contributions. Along with Milfie, another key account of the early 2010s 'Hoe Twitter' era was that of Samiyah (also known as @benadryl or ANALGIRL). Samiyah had amassed upwards of 100,000 followers on the platform, but was suspended a few years ago due to mass reporting of her account by Twitter trolls. For her, the subsection was an inspirational model for providing security and comfort to Black women existing online.
"Seeing other Black women with large followings made me feel like there was a community," Samiyah says of her Twitter heyday. "Most of my friends growing up were white, but then I get on Twitter there's Milfie, Yung Sadistic or Madblackthot. Even if we didn't talk, it was still nice to have someplace to go and talk to women I wanted to surround myself with."
Hickland, the force behind the anonymous EmoBlackThot account, had already had Twitter success as the voice of @MadBlackThot up until the account was suspended last year after being doxxed by Nicki Minaj stans. After Milfie's death and Samiyah's suspension, Hickland was left to build an audience without much competition. It seems that he made a clear beeline to become the top account within this space and his content began to read like a rebrand of Milfie's legacy for a Gen Z audience, focusing more on skin-care, celebrity and current generational events.
The remnants of Milfie's original movement still exists within key accounts on Twitter, specifically Aaliyah (aka @NOTORIOUSAALI), who works to ensure her legacy does not get tainted by copycats.
"Milfie was one of the pioneers of this movement," Aaliyah says. "Most of the credit should go to her. The confidence she exuded online, you knew she was the same way in person. She was nothing but authentic in person."
This very authenticity made Milfie the beloved figure she is today, and the lack of it is also what tore down the legacy of EmoBlackThot in just a few hours, leaving his accounts deactivated and his apology video deleted. "I wanted to deactivate the account without explanation and let it die," Hickland told The Guardian. "But people relied on it for their own reasons and I didn't want to not give them an explanation as to why the account was gone."
While classic #goals influencers like Kylie and Kendall Jenner still retain followings in the hundreds of millions through which they sell an aspirational, unattainable lifestyle alongside physical products, there's been a clear shift in what today's youth wants to witness online. For Gen Z, the allure of being open about your feelings without the fear of backlash or the weight of the internet's public permanency has resulted in a flourishing underground online world of finstas (private Instagram accounts) and anonymous Twitter accounts. Here, they are able to share their opinions freely without fear of social retribution.
Even on platforms such as TikTok, which has been dubbed a never-ending talent show, there is value in authenticity over perfection, with trends and memes allowing teenagers to explore their identities and speak up about social issues they truly care about, including the current growth in Leftist discourse on the app.
In a PAPER deep-dive into online vulnerability,BITCH Media co-founder Andi Zeisler suggested that growing up online as Gen Z is why more of them feel comfortable with their vulnerability when compared to previous generations. "I think generations before saw so many examples of people — particularly people who aren't white men — being punished for merely being honest about their lives," she said.
When Twitter famously suspended several popular accounts last year due to the amount of spam being passed through their systems, it made EmoBlackThot stand out. Their account did not seem to be anything like the Tweetdeck accounts, who would send their tweets into group chats containing influencers with upwards of 1,000,000 followers in order to boost their RT's. Without a name or a face to the account, EmoBlackThot became more trustworthy to me and many others; there was no brand selling you stolen jokes or Flat Tummy Tea, but rather constant, unfiltered support.
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Hickland did this through feigning authenticity via anonymity. As nobody was aware of who exactly was behind the account, it made it easier for him to create an alter ego, Nicole. Through an MTV Catfish-level of deceit, Hickland was invited into several private group chats where Black women bared their secrets to one another under the guise of sisterhood. Hickland broke not only the consent of these women but their trust, including Kat Hartwell, a prominent member of these group chats. Referencing her contact with Hickland dating back to 2015, she argues that he used these groups as a way to study Black women and alter his content towards them in order to build an audience off the least supported demographic online.
"He would hear our struggles and stories and even started to share some of his," Hartwell says. But he'd never say too much. Looking back he'd never answer questions about himself. He'd only comment on the things we'd say."
What's perhaps most interesting about this Internet Gossip Girl tale is that some people did in fact know EmoBlackThot's's true identity, but kept it hidden from account followers. Early on, Hickland began to follow his classmates from high school and college on the account — something that was an instant red flag to fellow journalist Brianna Holt, who says she went to high school with him.
"I do not believe Isaiah bought this account from anyone," Brianna says of a rumor that EmoBlackThot was started by a Black woman who later sold the username to Hickland. "While it is shocking to find that a man was behind the account, his friendships with Black women probably played a major role in his ability to be perceived as one anonymously."
One way in which Hickland played this role involved lying about having a period. According to one of EmoBlackThot's close mutuals, Susana, Hickland tweeted months ago about painful menstrual cycles and even told his followers he had endometriosis.
Susana was elated to hear someone as prominent as EmoBlackThot speak on this topic. Hickland gave her advice on how he coped with the painful uterine condition, and it was comforting to find another Black woman who had gone through a similar experience.
"Early Friday morning I had a laparoscopy to treat my endometriosis, and when he revealed his identity [later that day] I was really confused, but didn't want to jump to conclusions because he could've been a trans man with endometriosis," Susana says. "When I found out he was cis, I was really sad because I allowed myself to be vulnerable to open up about my condition to someone who turned out to be a fraud."
Hickland hadn't planned to reveal his identity for a long time. In fact, when I originally contacted EmoBlackThot for an interview earlier this year independently from PAPER, he agreed but only on the basis that I would not identify him in any way. At the time I set my sights on writing a profile about the anonymous account, EmoBlackThot was an untapped source of potential for research on how influencers of this generation are changing the online landscape. However, after my pitch was rejected, EmoBlackThot ghosted me for months. He popped back up in my DMs last month with a vague explanation about his mental health, stating that he felt overwhelmed by his account and informing me that he had reached out to PAPER for a feature.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until EmoBlackThot mentioned he wanted to get his own management team lined up. I found it odd that he would need this for an identity reveal, but brushed it off. Soon after, EmoBlackThot began to tweet about identifying himself, saying that he had a lot in store for his followers and that he planned to launch a career post-reveal. The growing focus on himself and how he was owed for years of work did not sound like the selfless EmoBlackThot we had come to know and love. Soon after, we realized why.
In fact, when EmoBlackThot went to mutuals for advice about how to handle the reveal, one person in particular took issue with what he was doing. R&B star Kehlani alleges that Hickland approached her weeks before his interview to ask for advice on handling the reveal of his identity In now-deleted tweets and an IG live, the singer explained that Hickland wanted her advice about how he should go about revealing his identity. When she discovered EmoBlackThot was a cis man, Kehlani says she suggested that he make a thread or tweet about it. Hickland informed her that he was pitching his reveal to publications, but she disapproved. For Kehlani it seemed dishonest to use his reveal as a career move instead of being honest with his followers directly. She says Hickland did not agree with her POV and quickly changed the subject to him wanting management, and he then asked her for a job within her team. Kehlani proceeded to ghost him. "I didn't know in-depth how much he was really scamming," she said on IG.
Initially, there was shock and surprise online at Hickland being a bisexual Black man, followed closely by anger at how Hickland had used Black women and our likeness to gain credibility and celebrity status online. He even occasionally received donations through Cash App from followers happy to give back to someone they believed to be a Black woman. In a note posted moments before he deactivated his accounts, Hickland accepted being guilty of all harm his actions caused, but claimed that he did not post nude photos or engage in any group chats with minors. "What is true is that I did hide behind this alias," he wrote.
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Despite his ambition, Hickland was aware of the backlash that would come with his reveal. In his PAPER interview he admitted that he should've gone about this earlier instead of consistently promoting a falsehood. "But it's also my fault. I could've [handled this whole thing] better," he said. "I had good intentions, but I still hid behind an anonymous identity and hid who I was — I feel like I fucked up majorly."
It seems evident now that Hickland hoped to spin this identity reveal into the launch of a budding music career. Many have alleged that they had received DMs from EmoBlackThot asking for advice on how to manage his 'friend,' an aspiring DJ, and that friend was Hickland himself (as shown by screenshots PAPER obtained). It could be that once Hickland witnessed the rise of his close friend Lil Nas X, who became a worldwide star after running a now-deleted stan Twitter account, he thought he might be able to do the same.
To build such intricate relationships online, speak so confidently on what it's like being a Black woman and deceive so many, almost seems like a Black Mirror episode. Hickland could've kept the account going for years, but instead chose to risk his reputation for an interview in hopes that he could turn his real identity into a profitable business.
Several people on Twitter have wondered why people were so open to trusting an account that made no attempt in being honest with their identity. For me, the reason I felt comfortable with EmoBlackThot was because even if I didn't know the face behind the account, their vulnerability made me relate to them. They spoke directly on racism and misogynoir in ways only Black women would understand, which in turn helped them build an authentic relationship with their audience.
The reveal came as a shock for Deja, a close online friend of EmoBlackThot. She had placed trust in the anonymous account, confided personal information and given advice all under the idea that this was someone who truly had her best interests at heart. Yet, she feels that people aren't as angry as they should be, instead choosing to make fun of the young women who befriended the account and not the perpetrator who lied to them.
"I think everyone should understand that the victims of this, and yes I do stress the word victims, are not at fault for trusting someone who some of us had known for years," she says. "Rather than blame people for being trusting, I think we should focus the blame on the person who was manipulating people for consent on sending nudes and sharing trauma, as well as trying to get clout and retweets. I've seen too many tweets where people are calling young Black women clowns and idiots for being a decent human being."
I too once considered EmoBlackThot a friend. They were someone I felt supported by and wanted to see prosper for all the good work they did in the name of Black women. Yet, all I feel is anger that once again our experiences have been commodified for someone else's personal gain.
EmoBlackThot set out to create a safe space, but in the end his own ego destroyed the very thing he wanted to protect. I don't feel sorry for Isaiah in the least, because for someone who had studied Black women online so meticulously, he should've been more aware of how this would have an effect on the online community.
In the end, it's a blunt reminder that you can never truly tell who someone is behind a screen.