by Dax-Devlon Ross
Earlier this month the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a study of Twitter usage that revealed two intriguing trends. First, Twitter’s popularity is surging among older users. Second, African-Americans and Latinos are on Twitter at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. If you’re surprised, I understand. Until my recent conversion I would’ve been as well. Just as the tech taste-makers labeled Myspace a “digital ghetto” thereby triggering the mass exodus to the safer confines of Facebook’s suburban similitude, my earliest critical encounters with Twitter left me with the impression that it was, on one hand, the digital equivalent of the dunce cap, and on the other a virtual security blanket for the vain. It didn’t help that Twitter’s earliest adapters were professional athletes and entertainers, people, in other words, we like to think of as self indulgent, over entitled and under educated, and whose public statements can sometimes confirm as much. And so, whenever a celebrity made an outrageous remark on Twitter, I chuckled condescendingly. When NBA player Michael Beasley posted a picture of his then latest tattoo and wound up in drug rehab, I shook my head. When the Times asked whether Twitter was making us stupid, I answered in the affirmative. When Malcolm Gladwell announced via The New Yorker that the revolution would not be tweeted, I stood up and applauded. The social media snobs heralding the dawn of the age of digital activism had it wrong. Viewing isn’t doing. Engagement isn’t activism. Thousands of people may click or comment, but that doesn’t mean they’ve made a quality connection.
Three weeks ago, at the urging of a publicist friend’s unflattering assessment of my social media game, I decided to become a Tweeter-in-earnest. At that point I had three dozen followers, was following sixty or so tweeters (but not really) and had contributed less than 100 tweets to the cyber cypher. I approached my twimmitment skeptically. On the advice of my previously mentioned publicist friend I started following people whose interests aligned with mine. Twitter, to my surprise and relief, is designed to facilitate this very process. All I had to do was click the “Who to Follow” tab on my profile page, type my interests into a search box and click the “Follow” button on as many account holders whose pithy profiles interested me. Journalists. Justice Reformists. Book people. Researchers. Information sharers. Some quickly returned the gesture and followed me back. Some, usually the semi-famous with thousands of followers, didn’t. But the real shocker was the stream of messages bearing four simple words – “Thanks for the follow”. I felt … appreciated. And when people started electing to follow me, I felt appreciative. This got me thinking. Rarely do my Facebook “Friend Requests” elicit so much as a “Hello!” from people I know in real life. Beyond pressing the “Confirm” button when they get around to it (if they still even check their page), they don’t bother acknowledging my existence. It’s as if they expect my friendship or, worse, could care less about it. In fact, the Friend Request and the Follow operate on opposite ends of the spectrum. One is like a private club you have to ask for entrance to; the other is like a public park you’re invited to visit whenever you like.
These early positive exchanges on Twitter got me thinking about its relationship with Facebook. Less than a decade ago neither application existed; now pretty much everyone has at least heard of them. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide use them (in fact the majority of Facebook and Twitter users reside outside the U.S.); many of these millions – including yours truly – have profiles on both applications. Both have added new words, meanings of words and usages of words to our cultural lexicon. Both have been accused of making us dumb, narrow and mean. Both have been characterized as glorified popularity contests designed to gratify our craving for relevance in a celebrity-obsessed culture. Still, considering them synonymous or interchangeable glosses over some fundamental distinctions that speak to the Pew Study’s findings.
According to the study users 25-34 and 35-44 have grown significantly since late 2010. Meanwhile, the 18-24 cohort has remained relatively stagnant. These findings are consistent with reports from other data collecting and reporting sources each of whom have found that Twitter appeals to an older demographic than Facebook. Digital Surgeons, an interactive marketing firm that tracks social media data, recently reported that the majority of Twitter users are 35 and older while the majority of Facebook users are 34 and younger. And while the 18-25 demographic makes up 29% of Facebook’s faithful, that group only accounts for 13% of Twitter’s following.
The question is why?
Klout, a San Francisco-based social media analytics company, exists for the sole purpose of measuring one’s influence on Facebook and Twitter. It accomplishes this by collecting “data” on a Twitter/Facebook user’s following count, follower count, retweets, list memberships, user’s comments, likes, and friend count. It then issues – for a fee – a Klout Score. Presumably, since both Facebook and Twitter reward users who are active, Klout’s analytics help users understand and target their activity in order to achieve their goals. Now, on Facebook activity can mean simply Friending as many people as you can, posting lots of pictures and frequently updating your status—all of which can induce others to click the “Like” button or elicit a string of comments, the content of which may be little more than “lol”. In other words, just being active on Facebook can spike your Klout score. Twitter doesn’t work this way. The objective of the Twitter game is to have significantly more followers than friends. For Klout’s purposes, the higher your follower-to-following ratio, the greater your influence. And this is where the demographic distinctions cited above may come into play.
Gen-Xers (thirty and forty somethings) are a skeptical bunch. Our parents divorced, remarried and sometimes divorced again. We grew up latch key kids. We saw our parents downsized. We’re the first generation being told we won’t do better than our parents. We saw market crashes and tech busts just as were starting out. We patently distrust institutions. But we’re also the bridge generation, the link between the old world and the new. We were raised alongside technology, not on it. We remember when people picked up the phone, practiced discretion, planned to spend time with one another. We know how to use technology (The founders of Google, Youtube, Amazon, Zappos, even Twitter: all Gen-Xers.), but we’re not enamored with technology to the point we willingly surrender to its every demand. Twitter acknowledges this reality. It doesn’t require users to provide race, gender, age or geographic location. It’s easily accessible on mobile devices. In a nutshell, it fits within our lives by favoring function over form. And the function many Gen Xers are looking for technology to serve concerns the exchange of a particular type of information that we consider valuable to our well being, careers or interests. Individualism is Twitter’s specialty. It rewards people with something to say, a clever way of saying it and/or who provide valuable information on a specific subject. People who are solely seeking attention or sharing distinctly personal “stuff” can easily get ignored.
At its core, Facebook connects people who knew or know each other, which makes scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed like sifting through my own custom-made Spam folder. Photos. Rants. Listings. Videos. Events. The real genius of Facebook may just be that it got us to accept delivery of our junk mail. At its core, Twitter connects like minds and interests. Serious tweeters are experts in a specific field who have access to valuable information and a desire to exchange those ideas on a virtual trading floor.
Which leads to the Pew study’s second finding.
Twenty-five percent of online African Americans and nineteen percent of online Latinos are on Twitter. Conversely, only 9% of online white Americans are on Twitter. In terms of Twitter activity, one in ten African-American internet users visit the application on a typical day, double the rate of Latinos and four times the rate of white users.
So why are people of color being drawn to Twitter? Some think it’s because black celebrities embraced the application early on. Others say tweeting can be like playing the Dozens, the comedic trash-talking game played by African Americans dating back to slavery. Both are plausible but I take it a step further. Remember how all of the music you didn’t hear on the major stations got airtime on the underground circuit. That’s Twitter today. A lot of intelligent, capable, creative people either don’t have access to mainstream media or espouse world views that mainstream media typically ignores or invalidates. Twitter provides traditionally marginalized communities and voices the space to build community and efficiently share information they care about with one another.
Okay, maybe you think I’m romanticizing black and brown tweeters because I am one. Or, maybe I just choose to communicate with a heady crowd. Those are both fairly accurate statements.
But maybe there’s something to what I’m saying. This month’s Columbia Law Journal features a story entitled “The Not So-Great Migration: from the black press to the mainstream—and back again.” In it, several well-regarded black journalists chronicle their career arcs and the reasons the African-American presence in mainstream newsrooms has declined by 34% in the past decade. Journalists cited “disillusionment with mainstream journalism” and “a desire to delve more deeply into African-American issues” as two primary reasons for their departure. The article also noted an analysis of thirteen studies conducted over more than a decade that identified a “lack of professional opportunities and an absence of career advancement,” frustration with having to fight to cover community centered issues and their perceived lack of subjectivity with regard to black issues. African Americans are not the only ones being squeezed out of the mainstream news rooms either. Native American and Latino voices are also disappearing from mainstream news rooms. Without access to traditional vehicles of expression, these voices have turned new media, particularly applications like Twitter.
As for those who think the problem with social media is its encouragement of insular thinking at the expense of open dialogue, spare me, please. At its best “open dialogue” is a euphemism for “dialogue the industry elites consider worthy of consideration”. Certain voices and views have always been belittled and ignored for one reason or another. Certain agendas have always been pipelined straight to the public. An application like Twitter at least helps minority communities cut through the detritus and have their say. Is Twitter an ideal antidote? Hardly. As I write these words #signsuasidechick, #relationshipkillers, and #vacationwishlist are trending worldwide. What can I say? People will be people. Until something better comes along (and it will), removing some of the traditional barriers that thwart the open exchange of ideas will have to do. In the meantime, one always has the option of quietly “Unfollowing” someone without fear of recrimination.