Last July describing the cultural impact of Black Twitter, Buzzfeed's Shani O. Hilton wrote, "It's diffuse, powerful, and all around you." That's the kind of active, influential user base that startups dream of. But we've barely heard a peep about it from Twitter. Now that it needs ad revenue, that's changing.
According to the Wall Street Journal, although Twitter has "rarely mentioned that its user base is more racially diverse," the company is suddenly "moving to capitalize on its demographics." To that end, Twitter hired Nuria Santamaria as a multicultural strategist to head up its efforts to target black, Hispanic and Asian-American users.
Ms. Santamaria says advertisers want to know more about racial and ethnic minorities on Twitter, from basic numbers to the languages in which they tweet. Last month, Twitter began showing ad agencies data from a coming report saying that Hispanics tweet more often than other users and activity among them rises when the conversation is about technology.
Marla Skiko, executive vice president and director of digital advertising at Starcom Media-vest Group's multicultural division, says some advertisers are surprised to learn the demographics of Twitter users. She says Ms. Santamaria's hiring will help Twitter attract advertisers that appeal to racial and ethnic groups. Until now, she says, "there hasn't been a champion internally."
This tight-lipped approach to a diverse user base isn't unique to Twitter.
Check out the "Popular" section on Vine, the video-sharing app owned by Twitter, and you're likely to find a number of black users, who have also influenced the type of comedy and content that goes viral on the app. Visit Instagram's "Explore" page, and chances are you'll find a photo from a user in Thailand or another Asian country, a fact CEO Kevin Systrom half-heartedly acknowledged back in 2011. Quora invented meaningless vanity metrics just to get a headline, but stayed mum about traffic surge from India.
Silicon Valley startups like to show off—they need to do it to get funding and traction. They'll brag about the size of their round, their number of female users. So why don't we hear the same kind of boasting about black, Hispanic, or Southeast Asian users?
It feels like the only time it's acceptable to acknowledge that people who are not white and American use your app is when it's Chinese users—since China is straight owning us in the startup game—or when it's an abstract global numbers, like the data Instagram just released today.
Here is one theory: Perhaps it's not Silicon Valley once again exposing their bias, but rather a side effect of who gets hired and who gets funded. Maybe Twitter doesn't know how to talk about Black Twitter. Like the advertising exec told the Journal: Until now, "there hasn't been a champion internally." Studies show that black and Hispanic users are rabid consumers of technology, as The New Yorker recently noted:
The Pew Research Center found, in October, that a higher percentage of black adults used smart phones than white adults. Last year, Pew found that twenty-six per cent of black Internet users were on Twitter, compared with fourteen per cent of non-Hispanic white users and nineteen per cent of Hispanic people. A higher proportion of black respondents used Instagram, the photo-sharing service, too.
But that's not reflected in corporate boards, behind glass door offices, or among the financial backers of these apps. I mean look how much chiding it took to get one woman on Twitter's board. According to the Journal, even advertisers are way ahead of the tech companies that are trying to win their ad dollars:
Some advertisers have long taken note. To connect with blacks on social media, "we chose to really what I would say 'major in Twitter,' " says Georgina Flores, director of multicultural marketing at Allstate Corp. For a recent campaign called "Give It Up For Good," part of an ongoing effort to reach black consumers, Allstate created a dedicated Twitter handle and a Twitter-centric website, and it placed advertisements on Twitter. The campaign's aim is to encourage blacks to share positive and uplifting stories about the community.
Twitter plays a growing role in Home Depot's four-year-old "Retool Your School" campaign, which gives grants to historically black colleges for building or renovation, says Monique Nelson, CEO of UniWorld Group, the creative ad agency for Home Depot's multicultural advertising. For a recent grant, winners were determined partly by the number of mentions of a school on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. There were 143,000 relevant mentions on Twitter, more than 10 times as many as on Facebook or Instagram.
Let's not even get started on how Black Twitter helped make Scandal a national obsession. In business, money talks the loudest. So if being able to sell ads against your non-white users is what makes Silicon Valley change its hiring and funding practices and cater to and acknowledge non-white users, at least we're moving in the right direction. To borrow their language, iterate or die.
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