Opinion

Social media companies ignore black users at own peril

Smart social media companies are the ones that pay heed to their black audiences, writes Mark S. Luckie.

The smart companies are those that involve diverse online communities from the start.

Host King Bach speaks onstage during the 6th annual Streamy Awards hosted by King Bach and live streamed on YouTube at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 4, 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif. The Toronto-born, Florida-raised internet star found a huge following on Twitter's now defunct Vine. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

"God created black people and black people created style," American playwright George C. Wolfe once wrote.

African-Americans heavily influence everything: entertainment, political discourse, culture and conversations that fuel the internet. And yet black users on social platforms are largely ignored by the companies that build them.

In an effort to drive growth, many social media companies make the mistake of exclusively courting brands and celebrities while ignoring influential black users. Vine is the latest casualty of this myopic trend.

Vine's success was due in large part to black Viners such as King Bach, Jerry Purpdrank, Simone Shepherd and Victor Pope Jr.

Around 2015, the company began to partner with talent agencies that saw the users' meteoric rise as an opportunity to court a younger demographic. But by then it was too late: Vine stars abandoned the platform for Instagram, where they could share longer video and grow a larger fan base. Those new converts, along with millions of others, eventually made their way to Snapchat.

Snapchat's growth was explosive. It ascended to 60 million daily active users in the U.S. and Canada since its founding five years ago. However, black people haven't limited their activity to one platform. An estimated 48 per cent of online African-Americans use Instagram. "Black Tumblr," an unofficial designation assigned to the community, is a cultural force.

When it launched, black users took to Periscope to showcase everything from protests to their everyday moments. Facebook, the platform that already includes 67 per cent of online African Americans among its users, later debuted its Live feature and Periscope was speedily abandoned. The company has still grown considerably since its introduction, but Facebook Live threatens to overtake it.

Anyone who's been on Twitter for more than a minute has heard of "Black Twitter" — or at the very least, felt its effects. African-Americans drive a large share of the conversation on the platform. The early years of Twitter were characterized by hashtags, memes and conversations centred on black culture. Later in Twitter's existence, the rising voice of activists further catapulted its permanence in the social sphere. In 2016, an estimated 28 per cent of African-American internet users are on Twitter.

Too little, too late?

In the last year or so, Twitter has moved away from focusing its outreach efforts solely on celebrities and started partnering with black influencers. The company threw its support behind the Blackbirds, its African-American affinity group. Guests like Luvvie Ajayi, Chance the Rapper and BET's Debra Lee were brought into the building. Google and other Silicon Valley mainstays have ushered their African-American employee resource groups into the public eye.

Black people thrive on social platforms despite the self-sabotage the companies inflict on themselves. Twitter is known as a safe haven for trolls who often face little to no retribution for their persistent abuse.

One of Reddit's most popular communities is r/BlackPeopleTwitter. Others like r/BlackFellas and r/BlackLadies have a robust presence. All of them serve as an online haven for African-Americans despite the not-so-uncommon racist activity on the platform.

Reddit has worked to remove this user behaviour by beefing up staff and introducing new features. Its new iteration has made it a safer place for everyone. But the damage is done :  black internet users shy away from the platform in droves.

Black people are natural communicators. Whether it's a pager or a post, we've employed modern forms of communication to reflect the offline communities we diligently sustain. Silicon Valley has, in its snow-coloured bubble, failed to acknowledge a shred of the impact of its black users.

The smart companies are those that involve diverse online communities from the start. They recognize that even if your workforce is lacking in melanin, chances are your user base is not.

Where black people go, the internet goes. You either have to get smart or get left behind.

This column is part of CBC's new Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Mark S. Luckie

Mark S. Luckie is the former Manager of Journalism and News at Twitter and the Head of Journalism and Media at Reddit. He is a digital strategist, author and the founder of SouledOut Cinema.

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