Tim Robberts

Time for Twitter to pull from its (diverse) ranks

Twitter’s employee data show lack of representation for its primary influencers — women and people of color

August 23, 2014 6:00AM ET

Since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, Twitter has exploded with a near unanimous public outcry from predominantly African-American Twitter users. Black Twitter — a multifaceted community of black activists, media personalities, scholars, artists, entrepreneurs, online organizers and writers — used hashtags such as #MikeBrown, #IfIWereGunnedDown, #NMOS14 (for “national moment of silence”), #HandsUpDontShoot and #Ferguson to express and collate their outrage over police brutality and media stereotyping. The rousing debate it has generated underscores the power and potential of black Twitter and is yet another reason Twitter should reward its primary influencers with proper representation and opportunity.

A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that proportionally more black people use Twitter than whites. Over the years, black Twitter has emerged as an incisive and influential community promoting social justice both on- and offline. But Twitter’s latest diversity data show that black Twitter is still a job fair waiting to be properly mined.


Twitter’s release of its ethnic and gender diversity data last month confirmed what we already knew about Silicon Valley–based tech companies: Its employment record for women and people of color is abysmal at worst and its stated plans hopeful at best. As with Google and Facebook, fewer than 3 percent of Twitter’s employees are people of color or women. Silicon Valley’s numbers overall are even lower.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo commented last year that diversity is not as simple as “checking a box.” He implied that Twitter should not follow an affirmative action model in its recruitment but rather hire a qualified person who fits the company’s needs. Fair enough. But his comments seemed to deny the existence of the host of women and people of color in the tech industry who are unemployed or underemployed. In addition to those who can be educated and trained, there are simply too many individuals qualified for the jobs at hand.

Keeping safe on Twitter

As a relatively new company still shaping itself, Twitter has made some efforts to hear the thoughts of those using its platform. And as seen during a recent Twitter Q&A #AskCostolo, having more women and people of color on staff would be beneficial to the broader Twitter-using community and most certainly the company’s bottom line.

Many of the women and persons of color who took part in the conversation focused heavily on privacy, safety and accountability on the microblogging platform. For example, in contrast, Facebook has made reporting of those who troll, threaten and harass its users easier. Twitter should take similar measures by allowing women and people of color to contribute to its efforts to curtail abuse and make the platform more enjoyable. The relentless harassment that Zelda Williams, the daughter of the comedian Robin Williams, suffered on Twitter earlier this month after his death — leading her to quit the platform — may now push the company to take such issues more seriously. But listening to its diverse user base earlier may have prevented the incident and the PR disaster for the company.


So what can Twitter the company learn from its female and minority users? The television industry can offer some clues. Recognizing Twitter’s effect on TV shows, Nielsen re-evaluated its long-used rating system, in which only selected people received boxes to measure television viewership. In October it began publishing Twitter TV ratings, which demonstrate the platform’s diversity and its viewing patterns, perhaps even encouraging the creation of entertainment more reflective of the general public.

Twitter, in fact, caused a shift in the television industry, and women and minorities constitute the foundation on which that shift occurred. Take, for instance, the introduction and swift success of Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” starring Kerry Washington. “Scandal” benefited immensely from the gleeful participation of black Twitter, and women who love politics, wine, drama and sharp clothing made it must tweet TV.

Power of diversifying

While it has a ways to go, Twitter’s diversity report is itself in some ways proof of the important role of women and people of color in the company’s growth. It appears to have been released at least in part because of a petition started by the advocacy group Color of Change, which was widely circulated during Netroots Nation, a progressive conference of grass-roots Internet activists that took place in Detroit last month.

And the company has made some strides. Last year Twitter hired a marketing expert, Nuria M. Santamaría, to help harness the potential of minority consumer groups through targeted marketing. Her hiring was a good start, but the company can do much more than that, in particular by focusing on privacy and harassment on the platform and listening to its users’ preferences.

In the end, relying on any single person to diversify Twitter is a scary proposition, especially considering the company’s low diversity numbers. It could lead to serious brand damage for any company not smart enough to understand its audience and hire individuals and agencies from those groups.

Burger King learned this lesson the hard way in April 2012, when the fast-food chain released various commercials targeting black, Latino and white Americans. In one of the ads, Mary J. Blige sang about “crispy chicken,” outraging her fans who found the commercial distasteful and racist. She expressed extreme disappointment in the final product, stating that she did not approve of it and that it was different from the concept originally presented to her. A co-host of “The Read,” a weekly online podcast focusing on hip-hop and pop culture, Crissle West (@Crissles), tweeted, “They always have us dancing for food.” Burger King could have used more race-savvy internal guidance in creating its marketing. Likewise, black researchers at Twitter could help create imagery and initiatives that resonate with its diverse user base.

Twitter should draw from its diverse ranks to improve safety, privacy and accountability. It’s not only better representation; it’s a smart business decision.

This discernment is important for all companies but more so for Twitter because the company’s closed-API-access business model has made user data proprietary, which it is now serving up to marketers and advertisers. This changes the dynamics of the relationship between users and the company from cooperative and open to lucrative and private. Imagine if Twitter were in the business of selling active tweeters to advertisers. In the case of #Ferguson, corporate goals could have conflated hazardously with the complex politics that emerged along with the hashtag.

Recruiters often say they do not know where to find the talent. Enter Twitter: There is a host of intelligent and capable minds that can be found on and off of the social networking platform. Some of today’s most innovative companies have already dipped into the pool of talent on Twitter. Buzzfeed, for instance, hired the stellar comedy writer Tracy Clayton (@BrokeyMcPoverty), adding diverse insights (and her Twitter audience) to its business model. MSNBC’s show host Melissa Harris-Perry is another example. An early adopter, she was able to match her innate qualities as an intellectual and part-time fill-in for Rachel Maddow with her increasingly engaged and growing audience on Twitter, thereby demonstrating a quantifiable, committed viewership of followers that solidified the existence and success of “#nerdland.”

As Twitter expands, its workforce must better reflect its user base or face the consequences of falling behind. Minority and women tweeters have proved themselves a powerful collective voice capable of pushing back against intellectual exploitation by journalists and other Twitter users. The company should consider drawing from those ranks to help improve its safety, privacy and accountability measures. For a public company increasingly focused on advertising, it’s not only better representation; it’s a smart business decision. 

Kimberly C. Ellis is an American and Africana studies scholar who is writing a book, “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter