Wednesday, February 10, 2010

You lost me at "ghetto slang": A white guy explains black Twitterati

(via Gawker) In "What 'Thuglife' Can Teach Us About Twitter," Advertising Age columnist Alan Wolk chastises social media experts who routinely overlook a significant subset of Twitter users-- African Americans. But Wolk ends up doing some marginalizing of his own through heaping assumptions about the age, class and education of black Twitterers who participate in popular trending topics.
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.) Read more...

It's a safe bet that (mostly white) social media experts do not understand the black community's presence on Twitter, because African American culture is as foreign to them as it appears to be to Wolk. Like Wolk, many experts seem to base their understanding of social media usage on one part statistics and one part observation, colored by privilege, personal experience and stereotype about the "other."

Note the labeling of black vernacular as "ghetto slang," a wording that carries all manner of class, education and value implications. Now, I have watched some of the trending topics Wolk describes move through my Twitter feed, advanced by educated (sometimes even at Harvard), middle-aged, black professionals. Wolk's examples of gangsta Tweeting seem awfully tepid. As a Tweet under the hashtag "thuglife," Wolk offers:
And @iPutYouOn, who says he is "Gods son...My mother's child...and my brother's keeper," notes: "I just cut the sleeves off my snuggie." #thuglife
What is it about this particular tweet that makes it "ghetto?" Indeed, it seems to mock the stereotypical idea of "thug life" associated with urban areas. Many trending topics driven by African Americans Twitterers reflect not "ghetto" culture, but simply black culture...and there is a difference. But that's a nuance Wolk seems to miss.

He does understand that trending topics like "#thuglife" are meant to be jokes. (Though he is strangely awed that the black community uses Twitter in this way and seems unaware that other communities do too. I mean, is "people make jokes on Twitter" really news?). But since he is not in on these jokes that require an understanding of black culture, he assumes they are the province of some dark, urban underbelly. He is not alone. Some of the comments to Wolk's article on Ad Age are confounding in the assumptions they make:
Great article, but I can't help wondering how many marketers who are trying to reach African Americans who use "ghetto slang" are sophisticated enough to appreciate the potential of using Twitter to reach them? I imagine that someone will point out that no matter how educated most African Americans become, they retain the ability to code switch, but something tells me that the people Wolk wrote about aren't among them.

Also, there's the issue of authenticity. African Americans are as keen as any group of consumers when it comes to figuring out ads and brands that are genuinely culturally literate (think P&G and McDonald's) versus those that use a black face here and there to seem connected (think Polo by Ralph Lauren).
Got that? Not only are blacks who use vernacular unsophisticated, so are the companies that would serve them. The underlying message of this article and many comments to it is that visible black speech or culture = uneducated, unsophisticated and low-class = ghetto.

Wolk's thesis is a good one: Social media experts and marketers are largely clueless about use of social media in the black community. By failing to get a full understanding of a powerful communications tool, they are leaving opportunity on the table. But in addition to illuminating this blind spot, Wolk also unwittingly demonstrates why it exists: too often so-called marketing experts fail to look beyond their biases to understand the black consumers they hope to reach.


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