Black influence has been making cultural waves across social media platforms since their inception. Before Twitter and Facebook there was MySpace, where Black creatives inadvertently learnt how to code or even further back there was BlackPlanet which some could argue was the dedicated platform for Black collective discourse and debate. Black influence is how Black communities and diaspora groups around the world use the digital landscape to mobilise, educate, inform and entertain whilst also shaping cultural and media landscapes. But as we move into new territory when it comes to influence and social media the question remains who really profits from Black influence and how do members of Black communities ensure that they are not written out of the proverbial history books when it comes to online trends.
Who really profits from Black influence? The short answer to this question is of course the social media platforms and the owners of these social media platforms, founders like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and their ilk have managed to give us these “free to use” platforms whilst monetising all of our individual levels of influence. If we look at who else profits from Black influence then it’s obviously brands, specifically when it comes to trending topics and virality where the focus tends to be Black Twitter. There is also the media outlets who often use Black trending topics for content and commission journalists who aren’t always Black to discuss those trending topics. The focus is often on Black Twitter as a marker for measuring Black influence but there is Black Instagram, Black Facebook, Black YouTube and even Black LinkedIn. They might not have the same impact in terms of online trending topics but they exist.
We also see how the influence of global Black communities has had an impact on newer platforms like TikTok. There was recently a popular discussion about Jalaiah Harmon, the original creator of a dance routine called Renegade which went viral on TikTok who was not being credited for her work until Black Twitter and mainstream media shone a spotlight on her story. It’s not the first time that this happened, remember when Peaches Monroee, the woman who coined the catchphrase “on fleek” had to create a GoFundMe page to raise money despite her catchphrase being monetised by major brands and even musicians. She didn’t get a chance to monetise her influence quickly enough before the catchprase’s popularity started to wane. There was also the case of Twitter influencer, MinaLioness being used in a popular Lizzo song initially without credit (or royalties) until that case was resolved. There are a lot of blurred lines and grey areas surrounding copyright and intellectual property rights when things go viral whether it’s viral videos, dance moves or even tweets. But there is still a lot that Black influencers (big and small) can do when they go viral which I’ve discussed a few times before. The key is to be intentional, strategic and responsive in order to capitalise on influence which unfortunately doesn’t always happen quickly enough in the Twitter space. However I have seen that Black influence is easier to monetise on Instagram and YouTube but that is often because content creators or “career influencers” shape those spaces. When a piece of content by someone who isn’t a “career influencer” goes viral, they sometimes struggle to take control of their newfound popularity. While Black “career influencers” make money from paid content/monetised views (on Youtube) even though there is still an ethnicity pay gap which we need to be paying attention to.
“Myself + a few of the other bloggers were given the minimal amount… we were told that the white influencers were actually getting paid 2-3 thousand”
— BBC Radio 1 (@BBCR1) July 12, 2019
Black Twitter has a few “Career influencers” who have turned their online engagement via twitter into sustainable opportunities – they often have other activities which they monetise and use twitter to promote those activities. But Black Twitter as a construct is very much about visibility, community sharing, clout and influence. It’s easier for concepts to be swallowed up without credit or cash. There have been quite a few instances when Black Twitter influence has been commercialised while Black voices remain invisible or uncredited. A good example is Love Island.
Black Twitter is amplifying #LoveIsland, providing an immense boost to the show and subsequently the brands who sponsor it.
However I’m yet to see any Black influencers included in a tangible way in the show’s production eg Love Island aftersun or content creation deals. https://t.co/uL3g9rzmDP
— Ronke Lawal (@ronkelawal) January 30, 2020
At least 50% of the most popular accounts tweeting about Winter Love Island 2020 were Black women as the chart in the above tweet reflects. The show’s collective enjoyment would be greatly reduced without the input of Black Twitter and yet when it’s time for press junkets, media commissions, sustainable influencer marketing campaigns and in house opportunities suddenly it’s a challenge to find talent. I also want to be clear that hiring influencers isn’t enough when it comes to inclusion BUT if we’re talking about making a dent into who profits from influence then of course the minds behind these trends should be paid for their ideas:
I’ve noticed a trend of PR agencies and digital media agencies using Black influencers and bloggers for ideas and campaigns but they don’t have inclusive teams.
They’ve figured out how to tap into that group and yet still their teams are not inclusive.
— Ronke Lawal (@ronkelawal) October 31, 2018
If brands and agencies don’t have teams which include Black creatives then the cycle persist; a lack of representation in campaigns or short-lived well-intentioned messages which lack depth. It is really important that brands change both their internal teams to reflect diverse voices. There have been in recent times a few examples of what happens when Black creatives are given opportunities to mobilise Black collective influence. Let’s take Angela Brown, a Black woman and the social media strategist behind the Popeye’s Chicken viral twitter campaign which according to reports led to a significant increase in Popeye’s profits. AdWeek’s Editor credited Black Twitter for making Popeye’s chicken sandwich a sensation with some branches selling out in regions of the US. It is important to note that the restaurant chain is not Black-owned however by at least giving a Black expert an opportunity to direct the campaign one could argue that there her input proved the power of Black Twitter and Black influence. In the UK Melissa Thermidor was the mastermind behind one of the NHS’ most successful digital campaigns, harnessing Black Twitter to discuss donating blood in an appeal to increase the number of Black Donors in the UK.
I recognise that, in a society which revolves around the constant commodification of every aspect of our lives, it is nice to log into certain platforms and get collectively involved in topics of discussed without the pressure of turning those topics into a monetised activity. However we cannot escape the fact that brands and trends are being shaped by Black influence across multiple platforms and those Black voices who are the helm of those trending topics should most certainly be given the chance to have a slice of the profit pie.