Social media can be a lot like the New York City subway system. Despite the huge economic disparities between class that exists in NYC, the train is a space where many worlds blend. This doesn’t only apply for the rich and poor either; on the subway, all races, ethnicities, and religions intercept as well. On the subway, much like Twitter, for example, it appears that the most consistently expressive group, the group that most often brings novelty or insight to the community space, are black people. For instance, It doesn’t take too many subway trips before you run into a “Showtime!” dance collective. These groups are generally young men of minority backgrounds, usually black, entertaining the subway crowd with daring backflips and other aerial stunts whilst playing rap music in the background. The typical set-up is one or two hype-men cheering the performer(s) on and telling jokes to keep the audience engaged. Many expressions are kept blank as it’s NYC tradition to not stand out on the train, but the appreciation for the spontaneous entertainment is clear through the number of donations the dancers receive. Magnify the subway community to the vast digital space the internet provides, and you have a similar scenario on a grander scale.
Social media is the world’s community space, the world’s subway. Information is exchanged through infinite channels, within a medium that moves fast. Here, content that is most engaged with begins to trend and go viral, which helps build a specific culture. It doesn't take long to notice that much of this culture is fed from content produced by black people. Gifs are taken from viral videos or reality TV shows featuring black people, memes that mirror black lingo such as “it’s lit”, “bet” or “yass”, and the raw creative content of fashion stylists, photographers, and directors all feed into this internet culture. It’s actually amazing that social media has provided us all with the opportunity to celebrate identity and culture in this way. Yet here’s the issue… Twitter, Instagram, Facebook… each of these platforms profit from the constant engagement this culture provides in one form or another but are the black content creators profiting?
In some cases yes, in others no. Youtube, for instance, with its vast community of content creators, has its Youtube partnership program set up so creators directly profit from the ad revenue their content generates. Because of this, it’s now possible for one to make a living exclusively off of Youtube. Many of the more popular content creators have actually become extremely wealthy doing this. How it works is simple: Youtube naturally takes a cut from the ad revenue your video content generates, creating a mutually beneficial relationship. Although Youtube takes a whopping 45% of ad revenue, it’s still better than Twitter, Facebook and Instagram’s $0 in potential earnings directly from the service. All the profits made from user content on these sites go to the companies themselves.
Lately, Airbnb has gotten into the mix, with the launch of their new Experiences platform. Experiences is definitely very cool, it allows users to provide experiences for tourists in whichever city they reside in. Such as sailing in New York’s Hudson River with a licensed professional, salsa dancing lessons atop a local’s terrace in Barcelona, or graffiti lessons in the south Bronx. It’s an amazing way to bridge gaps and connect people with various experiences through the sharing of culture. In the grand scheme, however, it’s potentially another way to commoditize black and minority culture on a grand scale. Ultimately, in this scenario, as well as others seen throughout media, black culture is still at the whims of the companies that decide how much our content and culture is worth if anything at all.
Recently, we’ve seen a reclamation of black culture in the entrepreneurial world. Rihanna’s ‘Fenty Beauty’ helps bring people of color towards the main-stage in the world of makeup and beauty, providing previously underserved skin tones beauty products that uniquely appeal to their darker complexion. Jay-Z’s Tidal puts a black man at the helm of an online music-streaming platform, creating stake in the new and rapidly developing service. And Joshua Kissi and Karen Okwonko’s diverse stock photography website TONL, brings black and brown faces to the world of stock photography, a previously very white-washed space.
Technology and entertainment seem to be promising spaces for minority voices, with a bright future. One where the potential for true ownership and independence for people of color is there. It’s where an entertainment icon can use their platform to rattle an entire industry with their brand, or where a startup team can come up with a revolutionary new app or site that empowers the black community. Black and brown content creators must use the opportunities of our era to reclaim our identity and culture, aligning your identity towards your work and utilizing platforms to build your own brand will become the driving force in strengthening and redefining black value in the world.