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Understanding 'Black Twitter': A look at the increasingly diverse Internet population
In May, Oprah Winfrey broadcast her final show. It was what you would expect from Oprah -- moving, emotional and empowering. More than 16 million viewers tuned in, and the daytime TV landscape will feel her influence for years to come. Certainly, this would be the top trending topic on Twitter that day, right?
While the term "Final Oprah" was trending, people did not mention it as oftern as #areasonwhyimsingle.
This is a great illustration of the different uses of traditional meida versus social media: A landmark event occurred for a passive TV audience, and menwhile, a big chunk of the Twitter community preferred to participate in a give-and-take that was sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes poignant.
Hashtags are a common way to track specific topics and participate in particular conversations. Twitter has an algorithm that pushes the most-mentioned topics to the homepage of every user. If you have ever clicked on one of these oddly named trending topics, then the demographic makeup of those participating in the discussion may have surprised you.
As several media observers hav noted, coming together to discuss and joke about trending topics is a hallmark of what has been labled "Black Twitter." In fact, people have called those types of topics "Blacktags."
As I write this, #iwish is the top trending topic. A few tweets include:
- #iwish for word peace oneday an u can actually wake up and watch the news and hear only Good things happening in life, instead of murders
- #iwish i could start over cant change the past but you can change the future #fact
- #iWish It Wasnt So Hot Out
To be clear, trending topics and Black Twitter are not the exclusive domain of African-Americans, and there are a lot of Black users who believe that this label is not constructive. After all, people from a broad range of races and ethnicities participate in these conversations. And African-Americans are not unique in their use of hashtags to gather and spread information.
As blogger Baratunde Thurston recently told NPR, "If you look at the network of 40-year-old White male technologists, you will see that they talk to each other a lot as well, and they're retweeting each other and replying to each other. But it doesn't stand out, because that is considered mainstream."
What is indisputable is that African-Americans are participating in social media in largenumbers - represneing ta significant demographic trend.
A more diverse internet population
The Internet population in general has become more diverse during the past decade, and its growth has accelerated in the past two years.
Perhaps because of lagging access to broadband, Pew Internet Project Seniour Research Specialist Aaron Smith notes that minority adults are more likely to access the Web from smart phones than are other demographic groups. Compared to White smartphone owners, African-Americans and Latinos are significantly more likely to use their mobile devices to text, access the Internet, post content online, record and watch videos, make a charitable donation via text message and use social media tools.
This brings us to Twitter. A survey of incoming college students attending the University of Illinois at Chicago by researchers a Northwestern University found that African-American students are more likey to use Twitter than Caucasians. Thirty-seven percent of Black students reported using Twitter in 2010, compared to 21 percent of White students. That is a greater discrepancy than Pew found in the general population, where 25 percent of African-Americans online use Twitter, compared to 19 percent of Whites online.
A real world community
In general, communities on Twitter resemble the real world. We're drawn to people who are similar to us, who have similar interests, concerns, tastes and experiences.
As groups of users who tweet in the same language show us - whether it's Spanish, Arabic, French or German - people generally form communities around alingned interests, mutual friends, and how we express oursleves in written communication. One of the first places we look for for these connections is among people who are like us.
Aurthor and career strategist Penolope Trunk wrote, "If I looked at my list of followers, I'd there there are almost no Black people on Twitter."
How diverse is your twitter universe?
As a PR practitioner, it's important to be aware of this and seek out different perspectives. Here are things you can do today to expand your Twitter community:
- Engage with a diverse range of voices within your organization to particiapte. Showcase the full spectrum of your organization's thoughts, interests, and ideas by encouraging and training people from different races, ethnicities, ages, and genders to participate in your social media activities.
- Be yourself. Language may be the defining characteristic of Black Twitter, but it is also a dividing factor between Black Twitter and mainstream marketing. Resist the temptation to adopt the dialects that you see people tweet. There is nothing more painful than your middle-age boss giving you the thumbs up and saying "Fo' shizzle!" in response to a tweet. If you try to fake it by adopting the dialect of the community, then you'll embarrass yourself and possibly harm your brand.
- Remember to listen. While Twitter searches are helpful, they can't substitute for actually listening to someone. Users are more likely to build a relationship with you if they know that you're patying attention. Do this by following users (practice selective inclusion here) and interacting with them through retweets, responses and mentions.
- Interact respectfully. Some brands attempt to jump into trending discussions by incorporating the trendning hashtag into a tweet. This is OK if you are legitimately adding value, but if you are just taking advantage of this to trick people into clicking your link, then it could cause backlash. Remember the mantra for social media: Always add value.
An untapped audience
Part of growing a brand online involves reaching beyond what is familiar to break into new markets. Black Twitter comprises a unique group of influencers, and is virtually untapped by brands. As Trunk said, "If I only read trending topics, I'd tihnk Twitter was mostly a Black person thing."
Although Black Twitter is not considered mainstream, it can be influential in that its participants are highly engaged and seem to have a knack for spotting trends, which is a gold standard in social media.