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The Future Of Twitter Is Black

BET CEO Debra Lee speaks onstage at the 2013 BET Awards. CREDIT: FRANK MICELOTTA/INVISION/AP
BET CEO Debra Lee speaks onstage at the 2013 BET Awards. CREDIT: FRANK MICELOTTA/INVISION/AP

Twitter wants everyone to know that it’s taking criticisms of the company’s lack of diversity and previously tone-deaf approach to gender-based harassment seriously. But Twitter’s latest appointment, Viacom’s Black Entertainment Television CEO Debra Lee, is about more than diversity, it foreshadows the social media company’s future: Black Twitter.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsay vowed to shake up the microblogging platform’s executive board when he took the position in 2015 and has stayed true to his word, replacing two white male board members at the end of their terms — Peter Currie, tech investor and former CFO for Netscape, and Hollywood executive Peter Chernin — with two women, Martha Lane Fox, the founder of British karaoke company Lucky Voice, and Lee. Pepsi’s CFO Hugh Johnston also joined Twitter’s board last month, and Google’s former chief business officer Omid Kordestani joined the company as executive chairman in late 2015.

Lee will be the third woman and the only black executive on Twitter’s board, a presence that gives an authoritative voice to the company’s 49 African-American employees. Only 14 of those are women and make up less than half of a percent of Twitter’s staff.

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Outside of bringing diversity to the previously all-white board, Lee’s appointment points to Twitter’s future: original and captivating video content that draws new users and targets African Americans, the site’s most active demographic.

Twitter has been struggling with plunging stock prices and high turnover among the company’s leadership. But slipping user rates and declining user engagement have been at the root of Twitter’s problems, except when it comes to Black Twitter.

Lee’s specialty is black audiences, a group that uses Twitter at a higher rate than their white counterparts. According to Pew Research, only 20 percent of adult internet users on Twitter are white compared to 28 percent whom identify as black. Black Twitter users are also more active on the site.

Twitter has become a valuable tool used by journalists, activists, and communities as a way to find and elevate stories often buried in mainstream news or on other social media platforms. Black Twitter has been especially instrumental in raising national awareness to cultural issues such as street harassment and police brutality, through amplifying and fueling coverage of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. The cohort has been credited with shutting down a book deal landed by one of the jurors for George Zimmerman’s trial.

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Aside from a few tweaks, such as changing favorites to likes, Twitter’s technology has largely stayed the same since its inception in 2006. This new crop of board members will likely come in to make Twitter more money through advertising (Johnston, Pepsi’s CFO), and help implement exciting new features that can lure users away from SnapChat, Vine, and Instagram.

Lee’s role could be essential to Twitter’s shift from a technology company to a media company.