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To Tweet or Not to Tweet: "Black Twitter," Social Media and HIV/AIDS Awareness

By Christopher Ervin

February 7, 2011

Christopher Ervin

Christopher Ervin

To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the organization to suffer the "followers" and "mentions" of your Twitter timeline or take to Twitter a sea of "retweets" and "#hashtags." It's ironic to start a discussion about social media using something as old school as Shakespeare. And if you and your organization are unaware of this newfangled thing called Twitter (and its cousins Facebook, Foursquare and YouTube), you might be better off in those Elizabethan times. For those of you who are at least familiar with the sites, and have even tipped your toes in far enough to have a Twitter account, read on.

So the question now becomes, as we approach National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, how is a site that seems to thrive on the navel-picking activities of celebrities and their obsessed fans relevant to the serious discussion of an epidemic in the African-American community? When I first created Aniz's Twitter account, I thought the same.

First, let me reveal a few stats. According to Twitter's press page, there are over 175 million registered users on Twitter (the U.S. accounts for approximately 40 percent) with 93 million "tweets" sent daily. One of the reasons for Twitter's popularity is the mobile nature of the service, with two out of three users using a mobile phone to access the site. In 2010, a report by Edison Research regarding Twitter usage in the U.S. noted that African Americans could make up as much as 25 percent of the 17 million regular users. Thus, Twitter (along with Facebook) has allowed a new level of communication and interaction no longer limited by geography, desktop/laptops or Internet access. Entertainers (Sheryl Lee Ralph, Danny Glover), businesses (LifeStyles Condoms), the media (BET, MTV) and even government agencies (AIDS.gov, CDC-NPIN) have recognized this trend and have begun utilizing these social networks as a means of knowledge dissemination.

But as they say, with power comes great responsibility. I specifically mentioned the usage by African Americans, because there is a media concept of "Black Twitter." As noted with music, fashion and trends, there is an apparent influence by the African-American community on what becomes the prevailing topic in various Twitter discussions. This is known as "trending topics" (prevailing words or phrases preceded with "#" in a tweet), a "call and response"-type system, engaging a diverse and large community. This can call people to come together around "events," such as with popular TV shows (BET's The Game -- #TheGame; or Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta -- #RHOA), be reflective (e.g., #whatIwouldtellmyselfat16) and even humorous (e.g., #lessambitiousmovies).

Unfortunately, through the volatile cocktail of relative anonymity and "group-think," negative stereotypes and homophobic, misogynistic and classist behavior have been on full display as well. Because of the openness of the system and immediacy of responses, "trending topics" (TTs) such as "#hoodhoes," "#itaintrape" and "#whyIhatebitches" quickly permeated through various tweets, denigrating women, with intent to shame and stigmatize. Another TT, "#RealMen," was peppered with homophobic and narrow perspectives of male sexuality.

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So how does this affect National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day? On Feb. 7, I am sure "#nbhaad" will be a TT as we talk about HIV awareness and promote healthy behaviors. But what happens the day, the week and the month after? We also need to have a voice to counter the negative, insensitive and harmful TTs that are becoming a growing presence on Twitter.

If not your organization, then you get on Twitter and speak out against the "isms" of race, gender, sexuality and health. As we promote healthy behaviors and lifestyles, let's make "#knowyourstatus," "#gettested" and "#usecondoms" trending topics. We must take away stigma and shame with a willingness to #talkHIV and show how we are #greaterthanAIDS. We must put into context what it means to be at risk for or living with HIV in the context of #poverty, #genderviolence, #lgbt, #hcr (health care reform), #economics, #justice and #jobs.

So in the end, let's be honest: As we recognize the 30 years that we have recognized HIV, although we have lowered the rates of infection, individuals are still engaging in risky behaviors and becoming infected in spite of all the educational and awareness materials that are out there. Also, we are hearing of more and more AIDS service organizations (ASOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) closing their doors due to a lack of resources. Thus it is vital that the leaders of ASOs and CBOs, along with advocates, activists and peers, understand that the community is no longer just those who visit their offices, are outside their door or are at their outreach events, but are now virtual. Their partners are no longer just at planning council meetings, coalition meetings, or sitting next to them at state capital meetings or city hall sessions, but just a "tweet" or "like" away.

The data show that not only are our clients and partners using Facebook, Twitter, etc., but so are our funders, supporters and volunteers. So we can no longer depend on traditional means, but must also be willing to "meet them where they are at" as they say. It is not a question of if you or your organization should be tweeting, but: "What shall I/we tweet today?"

Christopher Ervin is the director of development for Aniz, Inc., a community-based organization with branches in Georgia and Louisiana. He is responsible for coordinating the organization's social media efforts. For questions about social media, Mr. Ervin can be reached at development@aniz.org.




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