Next up in our #HerStory series is Sylvia Obell, a journalist, producer, and host of weekly black culture, entertainment and politics show, Hella Opinions, for Buzzfeed News. In this interview, she shares how she uses social media as a testing ground for ideas, and the importance of putting black women at the center of her writing.
How would you describe “Hella Opinions” to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet?
Sylvia: “Hella Opinions” is a black culture Twitter live show. It got its start as an Insecure aftershow where each week we would recap what was going on. We'd bring a panel of guests on and we would just talk about Issa [Rae] and the gang, and what they were doing.
It was a show that really invoked a live Twitter conversation in a way we hadn't really seen in a while for black millennials, so we decided to turn it into a black culture weekly show where we talk about what's trending on #BlackTwitter that week, what's going on in black culture. We unpack a deeper conversation, different themes or things that are going on in our lives, whether it's mental health or politics, or what artists messed up that week, cancel culture — all of those things.
#BlackTwitter is such a force on the platform — how would you define it, and who do you think is leading the charge and having the most impactful conversations right now?
I define #BlackTwitter as an army, squad, family — black people on Twitter who are moving the culture the same way we do in real life online.
I think the beautiful thing about #BlackTwitter is that there's not just one leader, it doesn’t exist or rest on the shoulders of one single balck person. You know, when it’s activism maybe it's Brittany Packnett, if it’s politics it’s Yamiche, if it's about movies or Hollywood, I may be looking at Matthew Cherry or Ava Duvernay, because she kills it in that way too. If it’s media it’s different people, if it’s sports it’s different people … so I think it really is about what the conversation is.
Tell us why you chose to follow a path into journalism — how did you get your start?
Journalism is something that I've wanted to do since high school. I never really had any other goals. I always knew I was good at writing and I knew I didn't have the patience to be an author full time, so I was kind of, like, “What's the in-between thing where I can write but it doesn't have to be such long pieces?” I was already obsessed with magazines growing up in pop culture, so it just seemed like a natural hybrid of what I was good at, and where my interests lay, which was entertainment and pop culture.
In college, I was managing editor of our paper, and after graduate school I took an internship at Essence magazine, which then led to my first professional job, as their editorial assistant.
You've now been in the field for a number of years. As a female journalist and a journalist of color, what are some of the positive and negative experiences you’ve had online?
As a journalist of color, and as a woman of color, one thing I've really loved is being able to write for black women first, which is always what I say I do. I create for black women first, everybody else second. I feel like that's such a rare thing where usually we’re used to being last. So I love to put us first and I love that it kind of gives a sisterhood that I wouldn't have if I wasn't a writer.
On the backend of it, the hard stuff is that when you do write for black people first, you often get a lot of racist people who take offense to that, because they're used to being first and they don't know how to handle not being put first. And to them that equates reverse racism, which is a crazy concept. So for me, especially when I moved to Buzzfeed from Essence, which was made for black women, bringing that same vibe to a mainstream publication really was the first time I got attacked on Twitter. Trolls emailed me about being racist or hating white people, simply because I didn't include them in the narrative.
How do you use Twitter within your role?
I use Twitter in a few ways and this has changed as my job has changed. When I was a reporter, I would sometimes use Twitter if something wasn't big enough to be a story, but I felt like it was important for people to know. I also use it as a way to test concepts for longer form things. So sometimes I'll Tweet out part of an idea and see how well it does — if it really takes off or goes viral, I'm like, “OK, there's a story here, let me look into it.”
I use it to tease the work I have coming up, and to obviously push out the work that I do. The second I publish a story, I'm not even thinking about people finding it on the homepage. I'm thinking about people finding it on Twitter. Live-Tweeting is one of my favorite things to do, especially when it comes to awards shows, especially black award shows because one of my earliest memories, even before I was a reporter or journalist per se, was Tweeting the BET Awards in college with my friends. So I use Twitter a lot. I mean, I even use it literally to broadcast “Hella Opinions.”
Who would you say are your top five must-follow journalists on Twitter right now?
It’s hard to narrow it down to just five, but one would definitely be Soledad O'Brien. She’s reporting the news but really not giving a damn anymore — it’s seeing the freedom of when you own your own media corporation and you can say what you want, and I'm living for that freedom. Hunter Harris I love, because she is so good at mixing opinion with journalism — it’s truly a joy to watch and experience her Twitter timeline. Jemele Hill, I mean self explanatory.
Nicole Hannah Jones and Yamiche both do a good job of using Twitter the way you're supposed to. I know if I have a political question about what's going on and I want a black woman's perspective on it or really just an expert perspective on it, I'm going to Yamiche’s page. If I want to know about race or the education system or hard-hitting, on-the-ground reporting, I'm going to Nicole’s page, because she will always have the facts and because she's damn good at what she does. She'll also give you the real on how this is affecting the black community straight up, and I love that. That's the information I need for the work I do. So I really love using both of them as a resource in that way.
Final question — are there any features you would like to see built into the platform?
Aside from an edit button? I would love a filter for one type of community, like a black women feature. A button I can press and just block out everybody but black women on Twitter, because when I don’t want to deal with the sexism, the misogyny, or the racism, I just want to come in and have a good time with my girls and go. Just a little #BlackGirlMagic button, something where it's just us because we're the least problematic. Can we just have our own little space? That'd be great.