“God created black people and black people created style,” George C. Wolfe once wrote.
African-Americans heavily influence everything entertainment to political discourse to the culture and conversations that fuel the internet. And yet black users on social platforms are largely ignored by the companies who 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 like King Bach, Jerry Purpdrank, Simone Shepherd and Victor Pope, Jr. Around 2015, the company began to partner with talent agencies who 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. These 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 impactful activity to one platform. An estimated 48% 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% of online African Americans among its users, later debuted its Live feature. Periscope was speedily abandoned by these users. The company has 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 centered on black culture. Later in its existence, the rising voice of activists further catapulted Twitter’s permanence in the social sphere. In 2016, an estimated 28% of African-American internet users are on Twitter.
In the last year or so, Twitter 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 diligently to remove this user behavior 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-colored bubble, failed to acknowlege 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.