Digital Divide: Segregation Is Alive and Well in Social Media

Are Trend Watchers Even Aware of How Much They Don't Know

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Pepper Miller
Pepper Miller
"We still have a pretty segregated set of experiences...those often writing about Twitter for a mainstream audience also tend to reflect the networks that they see." --Baratunde Thurston Director of Digital, The Onion, to ABC News

As marketers continue to drop traditional ethnic media and scramble to create the "ultimate cross-cultural digital experience and platform," one should take note of America's behavior on the web. Youth are everywhere on the web. But ethnic Internet users, both younger and older, are "congregating in spaces where there are people like them, or where they feel comfortable bringing people like them," says Ebele Mora, a millennial, and Chief Financial Officer of TUV Media.

Most multicultural and LGBT groups seek places on the web beyond cross-cultural lifestyles in an effort to connect with others from their own culture or sexual orientation. Congregating provides the opportunity for these segments to engage in shared experiences related to their culture, lifestyle, and music.

Importantly, given that society penalizes those who openly discuss racial issues, these spaces provide a refuge for honest conversations that affect their communities. One black Gen Y Facebooker confessed that she frequently, temporarily blocks her white Facebook friends -- and prays they don't notice -- so that she can have open, honest discussions with her black friends.

When Representative Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" to President Obama during the President 's health-care speech, black social media exploded with black Twitterers and Facebookers who sent numerous tweets, posted on walls, and flocked to black platforms. Mainstream bloggers' hand slap to Wilson was different from the black community's comments and conversations about the "disrespectful" and "racist" Wilson. Subsequently, the black web community surmised that society still doesn't get or respect Black America.

Thurston's comment above that called out mainstream web writers who have a limited view of ethnic group activity on the web is dead on. Mention bossip, jack and jill politics, kiss my black ads, the grio, The Root or Dime Wars -- popular sites that attract thousands of Black visitors -- to these self-described trend watchers and wait for their reaction --speechless (and priceless).

There's a powerful black digital and social networking world going on and many marketers and digital gurus don't have a clue. The value that most of these black platforms and social networking groups provide is a comfort level not experienced in some commercial mainstream platforms. They tend to deliver a FUBU affect (For Us By Us) in that visitors feel safe to be "real", and have a closed conversation.

"In many ways, these platforms serve as virtual barbershops and beauty salons", says multicultural strategist Herb Kemp. Kemp also adds: "Visitors are more likely to express what they really feel in these spaces and are less worried about offending others as in commercial spaces where there may be more diverse groups of people."

Arianna Huffington is not going to be left in the dust. The co-founder of The Huffington Post is joining forces with BET to add an African-American section, and subsequently will follow with a Latino section. BET co-founder Sheila Johnson sited this move as significant given that "the African-American voice is falling off the radar screen [in the digital space]".

I don't think the black voice is falling of the screen. In some cases, the digital space has become the new virtual real estate.

"People tend to use the web in the way they live," says Ahmad Islam, co-founder and managing partner of commonground marketing, a full-service communications and digital strategy firm in Chicago. Makes sense given that America is still very segregated -- blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos and other groups are primarily living, worshiping and socializing with each other. And now, as Islam indicated, this practice has transferred to the web.

Additionally, conversations between black Americans in the digital space have spawned new language trends via hash tagging. Hash tagging isn't new for black social networkers, given that African Americans are such heavy users of the service. Thus, according to Thurston, "it's not uncommon for urban terminology to show up in mainstream space and lead the discussion".

Angela Conyers-Benton, founder of tech news site Black Web 2.0, told ABC that when urban terms first trended on Twitter, it caused some confusion.

"Because it was the first time something urban had trended on Twitter, then all of a sudden it brought the 'Where did all these black people come from [messages],'" she said. "They were already there before. But you network with who you want to, so people weren't really aware of it."

Marketers need to be careful about abandoning ethnic strategies in the digital space. The opportunity is to understand what these ethnic digital platforms are and who, how where and when these consumers are showing up so that brands can better connect and engage them.

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