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The Root: Twitter Trends Paint The Wrong Picture

According to a new study, African Americans make up 25 percent of the 17 million Twitter users. Nicholas Monu/iStockphoto hide caption

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Nicholas Monu/iStockphoto

Patrice J. Williams is a contributor to The Root.

African Americans reportedly make up 25 percent of Twitter users, but the trending topics on any given day reflect hateful, stereotypical and misogynistic messages. Are we using our large social networking presence to do more harm than good?

Here's an interesting fact about Twitter: Black people love it. According to a study by Edison Research, we make up 25 percent of the 17 million (and counting) people who use the social networking site. And here's something else about black people and Twitter: We love to start trends — trending topics, that is.

Twitter defines trending topics as the "new or newsworthy topics that are occupying the most people's attention on Twitter at any one time." Adding a hashtag (#) to a tweet creates a themed, grouped message. If enough people tweet the same hashtag, it's considered a trending topic.

With African Americans disproportionately represented in the Twitter game, trending topics often originate with and are perpetuated by black folks. According to Edison Research, "many of the 'trending topics' on Twitter on a typical day are reflective of African-American culture, memes and topics." Though many trending topics are about specific people, events or silliness like #liesmentell, #itsnotcheating, etc., the mood has recently shifted into far more ignorant territory. Why is this how we choose to wield our power on Twitter?

Trendistic, which ranks Twitter trends, marked the most popular trend one day last week as #hoodhoes (and its similar tag, #hoodhoe). For 16 hours, users tweeted their definitions of a "hood hoe":

"If you only get paid when yo baby daddy get paid #hoodhoe"
"I like #hoodhoe they get a discount on they rent and they always got food in the fridge foodstamps lol"
"#hoodhoe emergency kit= leggings, track glue, cab phone number, ebt card, rush visa card, boost mobile phone and pre paid legal"

Twitter users can be fickle, and what's trending at one moment can easily fall off if enough people aren't embracing it. The fact that #hoodhoes was a hot talking point for 16 hours lets us know that people are co-signing and spreading the message.

All it takes to start up a trending topic is a large following. This was evident last year when comedian Lil Duval (@lilduval) started the trending topic #itaintrape. With almost half a million followers, the comedian was able to spread his misogynistic statements and allow others to get in on the action.

"#itaintrape if you pay for it first …
"#itaintrape if I fly u in"
"#itaintrape if I bout you popcorn and a drink … then u Didnt eat it"

The violent tweets inspired by Lil Duval were condemned by the masses, but there were more than enough people who helped spread his ignorance and create a "black Twitter" zeitgeist for the day.

It's interesting to note which topics don't catch on and trend. The topic #uncletomreporter (also seemingly started by @lilduval) was trending on the same day as the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. Though some people used hashtags #haiti and #haitiday to acknowledge the natural disaster that killed almost a quarter of a million people, the Haiti topic peaked at number 76 out of the day's most popular subjects. Stereotypes of black women can dominate a Twitter conversation for hours, but attempts to commemorate a disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left a million homeless went practically unnoticed.

Of course, not all black users embrace these trends, but the way many of us choose to leverage our loud voice on Twitter speaks volumes about us to outsiders looking in. The source of entertainment for some may be fodder for white tweeters.

Writer Choire Sicha, who is white, even admitted on the Awl to being obsessed with what he termed "Black People Twitter" because of our "hilarious" trending topics. I wonder if Sicha, along with millions of other white people on Twitter, finds himself amazed that this is how we choose to use our power on the social networking site.

Although 2011 has started off with some questionable trending topics, it isn't all bad. On the same day #hoodhoe dominated timelines, once the sun started to set, #thegame took over. The TV series The Game, which BET picked up after the CW canceled it in 2009, was premiering, and "Black People Twitter" went bananas with anticipation. Not only was the show a hot topic, but several of the characters' names were trending as fans tweeted about the did-you-see-what-just-happened moments.

If you didn't remember that The Game was on or about to come on, black Twitter surely reminded you. It's not a stretch to say that the social networking push embraced by fans is part of what helped the newly resurrected sitcom debut with a record 7.7 million viewers.

It has already been proved that we have a strong-enough presence on Twitter to dominate the conversation, but having that power doesn't matter as much as how we use it. Some trending topics just make you laugh and get you through a rough workday, but they can also educate, bring awareness, and even show advertisers and networks that our shows are bankable, as is the case with The Game.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, top trending topics included #mlk, #mlkday and #ihaveadream. At least for one day, positivity instead of ignorance reigned on "Black People Twitter."