2:30pm July 18, 2011

Are Minorities Being Left Behind in the Google+ Migration?

Minorities and Social Media

For all the talk about US Blacks and Hispanics being the most active users of Twitter and having a substantial membership on Facebook, it seems they may not be quickly migrating to and taking advantage of Google’s latest attempt at breaking into the social media sphere, the Google + project.

It is still quite early in the Google+ roll out, but according to a recent analysis, membership on that site has grown 350% since it launched to members of the tech community on an invite-only basis on June 28.   Today, there are reports that over 10 million people have already joined Google +.   But scan the profile images of some of the 940,000 users  listed on the website Find People on Plus and you may notice the dearth of brown and black faces among users.  And even among those who managed to get an early invite, they are like many of the later adopters who do not necessarily “get” the new platform yet and have simply set up a basic profile and have not used it since.  Much of the buzz of the site had to do with the fact that so few people were allowed on in its earliest Beta testing stages. The curious all wanted a golden ticket.

The site is used most actively now by the crowd of adventurous tech aficionados who are anxious to see Google finally get the social media thing right.  Google’s previous experiments with Buzz, Orkut, and Wave all failed to take off.   Google+ is slowly creating a new category of user addicts because it is cleaner, so far Ad-Free, and is touted as not being riddled with the same privacy concerns as Facebook, neither is it saddled with applications that litter users streams with gaming updates, for example.    Many Google+ users spend their time sharing ideas and tips on how to navigate the site.  They also lament how much better it is than Facebook in that it allows them more control over with whom they share information and interact, and how much easier it is to filter out those who they want to limit access to certain updates or photos.

Who is on Google+ now?

It still may be too soon to be taking a critical look at users of a 3-week old site, but since it launched, several articles have examined every aspect of the site including the fact that at one point, only 10% of its users were female.  Because more and more studies reveal that Hispanics and Blacks have higher than average mobile phone ownership and are accessing broadband through their mobile devices, it is not too presumptuous to think those groups would have been early adopters of Google+.  The “digital elite” , the interconnected web of popular bloggers, technical experts and early adopters to the newest technologies,  made up the earliest invitees.  This elite group is quite monolithic and for the most part includes middle to upper middle class professional whites and Asians.   In America anyway, most socialize in racially segregated circles so when Google allowed those on the site to invite their friends, it should come as no surprise then why the second wave of users mirrored the racial make up of the first wave.  Members of the black Technoratti who work with and associate with the general population of tech experts have a  healthy representation on Google+ now as well.  Perhaps, as they began to invite their circle of friends, they helped diversify the site.

But beyond these audacious early users,  many are still skeptical about adopting yet another social media platform, and especially one that is not necessarily intuitive.   Google + requires people to categorize their network of family, friends, and colleagues into neat circles and enables users to participate in simultaneous video chat and explore articles categorized by interest.

Google+ is not that intuitive as the tech savvy application development community may think.  It certainly is  not as turnkey as Facebook.  With Facebook, anyone can  pretty easily figure out the lay of the land within moments of signing up.  Not so much with Google +.   In response to some user confusion, there have been over two dozen articles published by leading tech publications and sites explaining how to navigate the site.  A killer competitor to Facebook  shouldn’t be so difficult to circumnavigate. And even then, many have already invested lots of  time cultivating a home on Facebook, building photo albums and “friending” long lost classmates and relatives.  It will take a lot to get many reluctant and less active  folks to adopt Google +.  So the question remains whether it will survive the initial rounds of early users, folks who are eager for its success and will more quickly appreciate its benefits.

But then again, not all people “got” Twitter initially either.  Minorities slowly gravitated to it as well and have since taken over,  some reports say.   An Edison Research annual report on Twitter  showed that Blacks represented 25% of Twitter users, roughly twice their share of the population in general.  A Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project report showed slightly lower usage statistics, but still impressive, indicating usage among blacks and Hispanics proportionate to their population at 13% and 18%, respectively.

Google+  shares user demographics based on region of the country, profession, and gender but not race.   When Google opens the site to all users, we may likely see more minorities migrate over but not as quickly as one would think or some would want.

Social media expert Lindsay Holmes, owner of LCH Business, a branding & marketing company, says while Google+ may be a competitor to Facebook, she doesn’t think Google+ will be Twitter killer.

“People who get Twitter and use it for marketing won’t abandon it that fast because they know its utility and Google+ can’t compete,” Holmes said. ” If there is anything that will slow minorities down from adopting any new technology that would be  intimidation and once they get over that initial hurdle, they will get on.”

Holmes said when people are able to realize the usability of Google+, they will join more when it becomes available to more.  ”We are people that need usability and understand usability,” she added.

It is quite possible then that Hispanics and Blacks, as a group, may be among the last to join the site if it indeed lasts through the long haul and becomes a viable competitor to Facebook.  They may be less likely than other groups to join the bandwagon and try a new platform.  They may remain loyal users of Twitter and Facebook as Asian and Whites, and tech savvy higher income minorities join Google+.

Google+, the place to go to escape the  “ghettoization” of other social media platforms

In essence, if  Google+ indeed is able to court away some of Facebook’s 750 Million users and black and brown users adopt later, we may be looking at a repeat of what happened with MySpace.  According Researcher Danah Boyd, scores of more affluent and white users abandoned MySpace for Facebook partly because there was an impression that it had become too “ghetto” and used by blacks and Hispanics.     She discussed this issue back in 2007 in a controversial chapter of a forthcoming book addressing “digital” white flight, the Digital Race Anthology.

In White Flight in Networked Publics?  How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and  Facebook, the Microsoft Research and Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society scholar conducted ethnographic research and used anecdotal conversations with over 100 youth to conclude there was a “white flight” from MySpace because it had become too brown.

Currently, Blacks and Hispanics still have a predominant presence on MySpace and are represented on that site at a disproportionate rate at 26% and 45%, respectively, when they are 12% and 16% in the population as a whole.  Some have speculated, though not gone on record saying, that Rupert Murdoch sold off MySpace, which was once valued at $12 billion for a mere $35 million because he saw no value in a tool being used primarily by minorities and poor whites.  Some critics of Murdoch say MySpace went down hill after Murdoch’s Newscorp acquired the once popular site, first used by nascent bands and performing groups to promote their albums and songs.  He failed to sufficiently invest in it to make it competitive to new sites – Facebook launched one year after MySpace- and then quickly abandoned it when its cream users stopped using it.  A more plausible explanation may be that NewsCorp simply wanted to free up some cash to acquire a majority stake in UK’s Sky Broadcasting, that MySpace was too prone to viruses, hackers and spam than Facebook or because Facebook was simply more attractive options for users.  But those who stayed, did so by choice.  As one blogger on the Project Economic Refugee pointed out, what Latinos loved about MySpace was the freedom to be creative, everything Facebook isn’t and why they did not join it when everyone else was.

Facebook  is used widely by all races these days as is Twitter.

But as mentioned,  recent reports indicate higher than average Twitter use among Blacks and Hispanics and data indicate this may because they are more likely using their mobile devices to access social media than whites. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American LIfe Project, 44% of African Americans and Hispanics say they own a smartphone, compared to just 30% of non-Hispanic whites.

Using this type of data as a guide, several bloggers and tech watchers have pondered whether Black and Hispanics use of mobile devices will enable them to leapfrog over other groups and help them bridge the digital divide.

While idealistic and hopeful, that outcome would hardly be realized so long as Blacks and Hispanics are slow to navigate to new services.

Are minorities positioned to be left behind?

Since Google+ was rolled out, a benefit of being an early adopter is being able to access and be visible to some of the top players in the digital, programming and application world.  Those who are followed by millions on Twitter, are only being “followed” by hundreds or thousands on Google+.  When followers pose a query as a follow up to a post by a more popular user, they are more likely to get a direct answer.  There is interaction. Right now is the peak and prime time to get on, start exploring, learn from and exchange with leaders in your field you may not ordinarily have easy access to on other platforms.  Once the site is opened to millions that accessibility will dissipate most likely.

Many of the current inhabitants are dreading the inevitable.  When news broke this week that Google plans to soon open up the social media tool to everyone, some Google+ users let out a collective sigh.

“There goes the neighborhood,” one person commented on the stream of noted Tech writer Mike Elgan. Another added, “As soon as Google+ is open, the quality will drop.”

These retorts show that Google+ perhaps , for a few, is a place to escape the not so pleasant aspects of Twitter, including users who in the past have been said to be degrading the medium by using it to create and discuss crass, misogynistic, racist and even violent trending topics.  While some users may want to be exclusionary, Google can’t afford to shun anyone if it truly plans to put a dent into Facebook’s 750 Million user database. It will have to be inclusive of broad demographics, encourage them to navigate over and make it useful and easy for them to stay and set up shop in a similar fashion as the earliest adopters.

When the site is eventually opened who is to say even whether minority groups and younger users will wander over and join immediately?  It may not matter.

Google+ may bolt out the starting gate, gain momentum and slowly die out just like other social media sites that have tried to rival and best Facebook.   Only time will tell.

About the Author

Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt represents small, women, and minority owned business and technology companies at The Ghatt Law Group LLC, the nations’ first communications law firm owned by women and minorities. She's won landmark cases on behalf of her clients which include national civil rights and public interest organizations. In addition to actively authoring several blogs, being a radio show host and sitting on the boards of three non-profits, she is a tech junkie who has been developing online web content since the very early years of the Internet, 1991 to be precise! Follow her on Twitter at @Jenebaspeaks, on her blog, Jenebaspeaks, which covers the intersection of politics and technology or on her Politics of Raising Children blog at The Washington Times Communities section. The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and have complete editorial independence from any Politic365 partners, sponsors, or advertisers. For additional information about Politic365, please visit http://politic365.com/about/.



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  1. John_Q_Public

    This post raises an important point: are minorities missing out on major tech innovations? With more than half of all Black and Hispanic households unconnected to broadband, the answer seems obvious. But merely highlighting the issue is only a first (baby) step. What are we going to do to bring more of our people to the Internet? That's what we should be focusing on now.

  2. S. W.

    This is an interesting article. Google+ does seem to be harder to figure out, but regardless I think the author is right that it will take time to roll out completely… If Google wants more users, it should continue to help with the fight to educate nonadopters about the benefits of broadband, including social networking. The company as a lot of power right now, but still has much to gain by reaching out to those who would benefit most from its services, including minorities and low-income users. If Google reaches out to them, they will reach back and embrace services like Google+.

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