What 'ThugLife' Can Teach Us About Twitter

This Ignored Demographic Shows What You Can Learn When You Look Beyond Social-Media Elites

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Alan Wolk
Alan Wolk
While most in the social media bubble would have you believe that Twitter's output consists solely of links to "relevant articles," "breaking news stories," "unique insights" or retweets of all three (along with the occasional "what I'm having for dinner" tweet from the latest Asian-Fusion-locavore bistro) a look at Twitter's Trending Topics reveals otherwise.

While the aforementioned geek patter is certainly in there, it's generally dwarfed on the trending topics list by tweets about Disney Channel stars the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus (put out, one can safely assume, by middle-school-aged females) and tweets from another demographic, 20-something African-Americans tweeting in what can best be described as ghetto slang.

(Note: These tweeters may well be Harvard doctoral candidates playing an elaborate practical joke, but the verbiage and profile photos seem to indicate otherwise.)

And what's fascinating is a.) how large and active this demo is; b.) how much their notion of how to use Twitter differs from that of the tech and media crowd; and c.) how much the self-proclaimed "Twitterati" like to pretend they don't exist. The Twitterati -- the digital/tech/social media specialists who "discovered" Twitter back in 2007 -- will grudgingly debate the existence of tweens on Twitter, as if there were a real possibility that 31-year-old programmers in Palo Alto were tweeting endlessly about Miley Cyrus -- but I have yet to see any mention of this young African-American demo.

And that's too bad, because the way these folks use Twitter is more universal, more inclusive and more fun than the way the experts generally suggest using it; most of their tweeting is around broad topics that invite clever responses, rather than current topics that invite the sharing (or, more accurately, showing off) of knowledge. As I write this article, the hashtag "#ThugLife" has been in the top 10 all week, and a poster on the Brizzly app describes its popularity thusly: "Users are tweeting their 'baddest' things they've done, as like a thug."

Which is sort of half right. The tweets are not serious nor are they meant to be taken seriously. They're jokes, and the hashtag serves as a sort of "can you top this" repository of over-the-top "thug" behavior.

So @Quenette_VA, who describes herself as a "college student & music lover," tweets: "I'll fil a zip lock full of baby powder & throw it into a crowd of crack heads #thuglife via @o_so_bad) LMAO!!!"

And @iPutYouOn, who says he is "Gods son...MyMothers child...and my Brothers Keeper," notes: "I just cut the sleeves off my snuggie #thuglife"

@Ghostwrita® of East Atlanta, goes for the literary allusion with "I read a Clifford the Big RED Dog book out loud in front of a group of Crip gang members. #thuglife"

The main thing to note here is that, unlike many of the Silicon Valley and Alley Twitterati, who take themselves and their tweets oh-so-seriously, this crew is having fun. The tweets are meant to be funny, and the funniest and most outrageous of them will wind up getting retweeted. Yet despite the fun and the humor, the flow of the hashtag is uniquely Twitter-like in that it mixes people who already know each other with strangers who are interested in the same topic -- or joke, as the case may be.

It's an interesting use of the medium, and the people participating in these hashtags seem to be getting as much value out of them as the Twitter-Is-a-Serious-Business-Tool types who busily append words like "Genius!" to their retweets of a fellow blogger's "Top 10 Reasons Location-Based Services Are the New Twitter."

So then why won't the powers that dominate the tech and business press admit that this demographic exists and that they use Twitter as much, if not more, than the stereotypical power user? Could it be because they're actually having fun with Twitter and that's a no-no? Twitter is, after all, supposed to be serious. So while the Twitterati trip all over themselves to point out the noble Iranian students using Twitter to further the revolution, a bunch of trash-talking 20-somethings from a markedly different social group are just not the image they want to project. Even if they do dominate the trending topics list week in and week out?

It's too bad, because there's a lot that both technology and marketing types can learn here.

To begin with, technology consistently evolves in unpredictable ways. And in the same way YouTube was supposed to be a place to share videos of your kids' birthday parties with grandma and grandpa, we now see how Twitter can be a way to share something other than "valuable links" or "crowd-sourced information." In fact, it can even be a passive medium; for every person posting to threads like #thuglife," I'm sure there's someone else just sitting back, reading the tweets and laughing.

That leads us to another valuable lesson, this one for marketers: People like to have fun and be entertained wherever they are -- even Twitter. Given that the conventional wisdom is that Twitter is only good for customer service, to share information or to run giveaways, the news that it's also a great way to entertain the troops is a real breakthrough. One that can lead to expanded use for the medium in more creative ways than just issuing press releases as bit.ly links.

Alan Wolk is the founder of the creative strategy consultancy (and blog) The Toad Stool.
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