Black People Are Going Extinct On The Internet
We’ll never know who created the Dab or Bye, Felicia.
In addition to The Dab, the biggest cultural phenomena of 2015 were the phrase “on fleek” and the Whip/NaeNae. No one knows who created the Dab, although the shortlist consists of Black men with ties to Atlanta. Additionally, most people don’t know the phrase on fleek was created by a Black 16-year-old named Kayla Newman who goes by the name Peaches Monroee on Vine (see below for the video that started it all). Despite the popularity of the phrase, she only has 85K followers on Vine and 3K followers on Instagram.
We do know Silento created the Whip/NaeNae song and dance,* which has nearly 1 billion views on YouTube and earned him nearly 2.4 million subscribers, but he is far from an Internet star. He only has 331K followers on Instagram and 75K on Twitter. Compare that with someone who regularly creates content like GloZell who has 4.4M YouTube subscribers, 1.3M Instagram followers, and 813K Twitter followers or King Bach who has 940K YouTube subscribers, 16M Vine followers, 1.63M Twitter followers, and 8.2M Instagram followers. Simply put, you get out of the Internet what you put into it.
Just ask some of the biggest viral Internet stars, such as Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, and Charles Ramsey. These individuals weren’t trying to create Internet gold, but opportunists like The Gregory Brothers made a fortune off their tomfoolery. This is textbook misappropriation and exploitation.
Although misappropriation is not new, many viral Internet sensations are stripped away of identity such that there’s no way of knowing if it is even misappropriation. We know Stephan Savoia took the infamous photo of Michael Jordan at his Hall of Fame induction, but who created the Crying Jordan meme? We know Ice Cube wrote Friday, but who resurrected the phrase “Bye, Felicia” two decades later? If a Black person is responsible for the Crying Jordan meme or Bye, Felicia, they may as well not even exist like the ghostwriter of your favorite song.
The only way to effectively use the Internet is to create a distinct identity or persona. At the end of June, the annual VidCon convention was held in Anaheim, CA, where fans met some one of the biggest social media stars (almost exclusively YouTubers). If you look at the list of over 300 Featured Creators, you’ll notice that there’s very few Blacks on the list. Note that the absence of Black YouTubers isn’t some type of oversight by VidCon. Indeed, many Black Featured Creators, like Coma Niddy and Jazmyne Drakeford, have relatively small followings, which leads me to believe organizers tried to make VidCon as inclusive as possible.
The lack of Black content creators is bad on YouTube, but even worse for newer platforms aimed at Generation Z. If you look at the Top 150 daily users of Musical.ly, one of the hottest apps for tweens and teens, you’ll only see three Black people. Two of whom, musicians Flo Rida (#109) and Jason Derulo (#122), are already famous. Blacks are also noticeably absent on the leaderboards of other teen-centric apps, like YouNow.
I am most troubled about the lack of Black Internet stars because the next generation of actors, singers, and whatever the hell Kim Kardashian does will be found online. Social media influencer marketing will be a $5–10 billion industry by 2020. Blacks were late to the YouTube party and likely are now too late to become a top Muser (Musical.ly user). #1 Muser Baby Ariel is a 15-year-old Panamanian/ Cuban/ Spanish/ Israeli Florida girl with nearly 12M followers and is represented by Collab Studios. In addition to making an appearance at VidCon, she’s doing a 28-city meet and greet tour with other social media stars called the DigiTour (and to think I was living the life sweeping popcorn and watching free movies during my high school summers).
There’s another meet and greet tour call MAGCON that, like the DigiTour, consists of all white boys, one girl, and a Black guy. Whereas the Black guy on DigiTour, Rickey Thompson, has millions of followers, Willie Jones, the Black guy doing MAGCON, is country singer who hasn’t broken 200K followers on any platform. How hard is it to find a Black Gen-Zer with a large following online? Hell, nearly every top Muser — the average age of whom can’t be more than 12 — has millions of followers and an email listed for business inquiries.
Speaking of musicians, millennials search for new artists on Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal (and Pandora for the older millennials). Members of Generation Z, however, search for music on YouTube and Vine. Indeed, Justin Bieber, Jack & Jack, and Shawn Mendes all were discovered on social media. Where are all the Black breakout Internet artists? I’m not talking about artists who go viral like Silento or Bobby Shmurda. Viral songs are the new one-hit wonders. I’m referencing artists who have methodically built a following by consistently and repeatedly posting songs on YouTube or in 6-second soundbites on Vine.
What is going to happen 10 years from now when Black entertainers who rose to prominence through traditional means, such as Kanye West and Kevin Hart, fade away? Even Chance the Rapper — arguably the most creative millennial artist — still puts out mixtapes. But that’s the old way of thinking. Internet artists have to release content in a way that is engaging. For example, you’ve probably never heard of Brent Morgan. He’s a former Methodist church worship leader who makes $10K/month from his 115K YouNow fans. All he has to do is play songs and interact with fans in real time to receive tips.
The musician who most understands Internet engagement is Drake. First, he randomly released “Hotling Bling” on his SoundCloud page. Then he gave us the video, which instantly became Internet gold. But this wasn’t a coincidence. The N.Y. Times wrote a piece about how he knew “Hotline Bling” would be turned into memes and gifs, stating:
No celebrity understands the mechanisms of Internet obsession better than Drake. Online, fandom isn’t merely an act of receiving — it’s one of interaction, recontextualization, disputed ownership and cheek. For the celebrity, it’s about letting go of unilateral top-down narratives and letting the hive take control. For fans, it’s about applying personalization to the object of adoration.
In part, that has to do with the unclutteredness of the video, which mostly surrounds Drake with blank space. There’s also the nature of the dancing itself, which is also more or less blank: a series of slight shifts of weight, quick hand gestures, head bobbles and side-to-side steps. They’re small moves that he repeats — in essence, he’s making a GIF of himself, anticipating what will inevitably happen to him online.
The only other artist who moves at the speed of the Internet is Drake’s long-time collaborator DJ Khaled. On Friday, DJ Khaled released his newest album “Major🔑,” which is a phrase he repeatedly used to build his Snapchat empire. The N.Y. Times wraps it up with the following quote:
But no one has mastered Snapchat — the outlet where publicly posted pictures and videos live for 24 hours, then disappear — like DJ Khaled, who has become a social media celebrity in a way that outpaces his musical fame. (His handle is @djkhaled305.) His effectiveness and addictiveness in the medium have elevated him from carnival barker to transcendent public figure.
So if Black people are not creating content for the Internet or creating content, but not getting credit for it, do we even exist on the Internet? That’s not a rhetorical question, the answer is no. Newman, who created on fleek, said:
“I gave the world a word, I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated. But I also feel that good things happen to those who wait.”
I hate to break it to her, but she isn’t ever going to get sh*t. As a Fader article entitled, “Black Teens Are Breaking The Internet And Seeing None Of The Profits,” rightfully points out:
Atlanta … is legendary as a place where teens generate culture, and then go uncompensated as their style and tastes are usurped by a corporate machine hungry for Black Cool. Cultural sharing is ancient. That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia.
Part of the reason the originators of viral content are stripped from their labor is because they don’t technically own their production. Twitter does, Vine does, Snapchat does, and the list goes on. Intangible things like slang and styles of dance are not considered valuable, except when they’re produced by large entities willing and able to invest in trademarking them.
Indeed, it seems like the people capitalizing from Internet anonymity are corporate brands. For instance, Hefty had a campaign that was praised by Ad Week named #PartyHardMoms featuring surburban moms using the latest slang like on fleek or Bye, Felicia.
So what’s the solution? First, and foremost, Blacks have to create brands. “Black Twitter” is not a person. We have to treat ourselves as individual brands, like King Bach, GloZell, Rickey Thompson, Jay Versace, Jerry Purpdrank, DeStorm Power, Kingsley, Summerella, or the Westbrook sisters.
To clarify, a brand has a central theme. Nike doesn’t make smartphones and Apple doesn’t make sneakers. My job at DuckFox requires me to be a social media talent scout. What I have found is that the most successful social media influencers pick one thing (comedy, fashion, art, photography, makeup, fitness, etc.) and stick to it. In order words, it’s possible to gain tens of thousands of followers if you post memes, pictures of your food, selfies, artistic photos, OR inspirational quotes. Not AND.
Next, we also have to become early adopters of new mediums. If you want to be a top person on a social media platform, you have become one of the first content creators, like Amanda Oleander on Periscope.
Finally — and I feel like a broken record at this point — we have to have ownership over our creations. The only thing worse than not seeing Black kids represented at Scripps Spelling Bee is seeing all those non-Black kids dabbing when they correctly spelled a word.
For my part, it’s too late for my personal social media accounts to become branded. However, I’m the type of person to put his money where his mouth is, so I’ve managed to convince my fiancee to create a brand with me called Normal Black Day or #nbd for short. I got the inspiration from looking up marriage proposal videos on YouTube and searching for family bloggers on Instagram and seeing almost no one who looked like me. The first video I uploaded to my channel was my marriage proposal (I promise it’s worth your time). In addition to using traditional social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), we plan on embracing new media platforms like YouNow. Since we’re high school sweethearts who reunited after 13 years, we plan on giving real-time dating advice to teens on YouNow.
We probably won’t end up having hundreds of thousands of followers, but we’re not doing it for fame. We’re just people who want to make a contribution to society and get credit for it. Because if we don’t give ourselves credit, who will?
*Technically, Silento did not create a dance, so much as he made a song instructing listeners to do preexisting dances popularized by Black youth. For the purpose of this article, I will credit him with being the creator of the Whip/NaeNae, but note that if he wasn’t Black, he likely would have been criticized for misappropriating Black culture.