Facebook? Check. Twitter? Check. Tumblr? Check. LinkedIn? Check. Social media and social networking has without a doubt become a large presence in our daily lives. As you can see, I personally have an account on most of the major social media websites today. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project specifically on Twitter and its users in 2010, it isn’t much of a surprise that I have a Twitter account. The survey found that of Internet users, those between the ages of 18-29 are significantly more likely to use Twitter than older adults. However, the most intriguing finding from the survey is the race/ethnicity breakdown of Twitter users. The survey found that Blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as Caucasian Internet users. In a follow-up survey on Twitter use in 2011, Pew found that Blacks and Hispanics continued to have a high percentage of Twitter users, with 25% and 19% within each race/ethnicity of all Internet users respectively.
Unfortunately, Pew doesn’t really try to explore the reasons why the racial/ethnic breakdown of Twitter users is what it is. A user by the name of ‘Jose’ on ThickCulture doesn’t have all the answers to the question either; however, he speculates that “blacks and Latinos in the US are more prone to communitarian values than non Hispanic-whites in the US who might be more individualistic in their world view.” In other words, Blacks and Hispanics would be “more drawn to the ability to forge and sustain community.” While he recognizes that this is a broad generalization, it is an interesting idea. Jose goes onto suggest that since Blacks and Hispanics are more community-minded, perhaps Twitter can help translate this idea into the real world to close the social divide in the United States.
While I am unsure as to how instrumental Twitter can be in dealing with something as substantial as social divide in the United States, I was interested in seeing how accurate Jose’s assertion about Blacks and Hispanics having a greater proclivity towards community was. After some frantic Googling, I stumbled upon an article titled “How Black People Use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging” authored by Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com. The article explores why certain Twitter hashtags, i.e., #wordsthatleadtotrouble, end up trending worldwide while others do not. The primary use of hashtags on Twitter is to categorize tweets, making it much easier to search for tweets on a certain subject. However, some hashtags result in “worldwide call-and response conversations in which people compete to outdo one another with ever more hilarious, bizarre, or profane posts.” As the author clicked through the tweets of the #wordsthatleadtotrouble hashtag, he noted that, based on the Twitter avatars, most of the participants were African-American. Thus, #wordsthatleadtotrouble can be referred to as a ‘blacktag,” meaning it was a hashtag that was started by an African-American, exposed to a wider audience by an African-American, and perpetuated by young African-Americans all over the United States (in this particular case). Manjoo is interested in why these hashtags continuously get so popular, and poses a myriad of questions with regards to this phenomenon which include:
- What explains the rise of tags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble?
- Are black people participating in these types of conversations more often than nonblacks?
- Are other identifiable groups starting similar kinds of hashtags, but it’s only those initiated by African-Americans that are hitting the trending topics list?
- If that’s true, what is it about the way black people use Twitter that makes their conversations so popular?
After following certain Twitter trends from start to finish and talking to researchers who have studied trends on Twitter, Manjoo concluded that young African-Americans seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else, and that they form “tighter clusters” on the social media site. In other words, young African-Americans tend to reciprocate “follows,” retweet each more often, and more likely to engage in conversations via Twitter, creating a tight-knit community. Additionally, rather than following celebrities or news organizations (who generally don’t follow users back) like most Twitter users , more of the followers of young African-Americans are part of reciprocal relationships, a.k.a. they follow everyone that follows them. With that said, most of these ‘blacktags’ emerge among these tightly clustered networks; thus, the trend, whatever it may be, has a greater exposure to a dense, expansive network. From this article, it appears as if Jose’s theory of community among African-Americans is rather accurate.
Ever since I’ve gotten a Twitter, I’ve also wondered how certain subjects and topics start trending worldwide, and this seems to be a good basis for an answer. From personal experience, I have noticed that my African-American friends tend to tweet more frequently and are more likely to engage in extensive conversations on Twitter. In fact, one of my friends just mentioned today how her timeline (similar to a Facebook newsfeed) was flooded with tweets back and forth between two people, both black, that she follows on Twitter. I never really stopped to consider how these communications could be responsible for the formation of these tightly-clustered online communities. Since Clay Shirky has a keen interest in the prevalence of social media in our generation, I think it would be really interesting to hear his take on the racial/ethnic breakdown of social media usage. Nevertheless, considering race/ethnicity or not, this goes to show the increasing power of social media as a tool of the public sphere – a place for everyone and anyone to gather to share their public opinions/thoughts on anything, ranging from world events to the next top trending hashtag.