May 6, 2010 -- When Vanity Fair published a story earlier this year on a group of all-American, all-white "tweethearts," the real Twitterati took the magazine to task for ignoring a growing force on Twitter: African-Americans.
They may not make up the majority of people on the popular micro-blogging site, but frequent tweeters say their influence on trending topics and popular memes is undeniable. And, increasingly, researchers are coming up with the data to show it.
In its annual Twitter usage report, Edison Research last week said it appears that African-Americans make up about 24 percent of Twitter users, which is nearly double their representation in the U.S. population.
Edison surveyed about 1,700 people over the phone and found that about 7 percent use Twitter. From that group, they pulled out the people who use Twitter at least once a month and then segmented users by gender, age, education and ethnicity.
Though the sample size is small, Edison researchers said the difference between the percentage of African-Americans who use Twitter and the percentage of African-Americans in the general population (about 13.5 percent, according to census data) is still significant.
"I would characterize it as disproportionately higher," said Tom Webster, vice president of strategy and marketing for Edison.
While he said that the percentage of African-American Twitter users may not necessarily be double the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S., he emphasized that the difference is still outside the margin of error.
Mobile Usage, Age Contribute to More African-Americans on Twitter
Susannah Fox, a researcher with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said she has observed a similar trend in Pew research.
In a report released last fall, Pew found that while 19 percent of white Internet users said that they use Twitter, 26 percent of online African-Americans said they tweet.
"It's probably a confluence of factors," Fox said. "Young people are the most likely people to be using [Twitter] and people with mobile devices. And in general when we look at the African-American-American Internet user community, they are likely to be younger and more likely to be using mobile devices."
Internet Still Offers Segregated Experiences
But even some African-American tweeters acknowledge that the influence of black culture on Twitter takes some by surprise.
"When you think cutting-edge adoption of technology, mobile services, you have the image in your head and it's probably some other stereotype," said Baratunde Thurston, Web editor for The Onion, author of the forthcoming book "How to Be Black" and highly-followed Twitterer. "The image of black people en masse doesn't usually coincide with the latest and greatest in technology."
Thurston said that though the Internet has held the promise of cross-cultural interactions, it doesn't always deliver on it.
"We still have a pretty segregated set of experiences," he said, pointing out social media research that has shown that people are attracted to those like them and online networks tend to reinforce that phenomenon. He added that those often writing about Twitter for a mainstream audience also tend to reflect the networks that they see.
The Vanity Fair article on "America's Tweethearts" didn't accurately portray all that Twitter is, he said, but it portrayed what it can be for some people, "unless you go out of your way to bump across something different."
Trending Topics Clues Users in to Other Groups on Twitter
People get a real sense of their online neighbors through the trending topics that Twitter and third-party sites publicize, Thurston said.
Among the "hashtaggery" contributed by black Twitter users, he listed #blackis, #blackain't, #uainthittinitright, #santawasblack and #ripbig.
Angela Conyers-Benton, founder and publisher of the tech news site Black Web 2.0, said the first time urban terms -- "BET Awards," "Beyonce", "Ne-Yo," "Jamie Foxx," "Mary Mary" -- trended on Twitter was during the BET Awards last June.
"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."
But she said the trending BET terms sparked a racist reaction from some Twitter users, including a Tumblr site OMGBlackPeople.Tumblr.com (which is no longer active) and the Twitter account @omgblackpeople.
As Twitter Contines to Go Global, Other Groups Gain Influence
Conyers said that in addition to the demographic reasons for Twitter's popularity among black users, the site may be more popular among African-Americans because as opposed to the "walled garden" of Facebook, Twitter is more open and similar to MySpace.
Referencing social media research that has shown that MySpace is more popular among black and Latino teens, while Facebook is more popular among white and Asian teens, Conyers said, "With MySpace, there was a lot more functionality so people did use it more as a communication tool or a promotional tool. People are using Twitter in the same way."
But as Twitter continues to extend its international reach, some trend watchers on Twitter say that they don't expect African-American tweeters to necessarily maintain their online influence.
"I'm expecting that to probably decrease as Twitter goes gangbusters globally," said Ingo Muschenetz, CEO of What The Trend, a Web site that tracks and explains trending topics on Twitter.
Since the beginning of the year, he said he's seen more international terms break into the trending topics on Twitter.
For example, as Koreans have come online, he's seen more Korean Boy bands lead trending topics. As Indonesians have joined Twitter, he's seen trending terms in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language.
Each time, he said, more experienced tweeters seem surprised by the arrival of the new kids on the block.
"As new groups come online, they start becoming really sort of influential," he said. "And other people will respond and react to that."