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Hashtags and race: Beyond the 'Jersey Shore' effect on Twitter

August 5, 2011 |  4:58 pm

Jersey shore
It's no secret that Twitter draws in people hungry for celebrity and entertainment news -- and celebs and shows alike have tried to capitalize on those social forces. Thursday's "Jersey Shore" season premiere sparked massive traffic levels on Twitter, and shows such as "Fringe" have taken to watermarking episodes with their hashtagged names. "Project Runway" has  gone so far as to create individual hashtags for each contestant.

But tear away from the TV screen for a second and you'll find that some of the most successful hashtags aren't news- or celeb-related, but instead phrases like #ChicksWithGoldTeeth or #WhenIWas13. And they're often being tweeted by African Americans.

A recent study in the journal New Media & Society highlighted this demographic trend: Blacks are more likely to use Twitter than whites.

The researchers surveyed 505 students at the University of Illinois at Chicago and found that 37% of African American students surveyed were using the social media platform in 2010, compared to just 21% of white students.

Brendan Meeder of Carnegie Mellon University might have a theory, according to an interesting Slate article titled "How Black People Use Twitter."

Looking through his database of tweets from more than 100 million users, Meeder found large clusters of people -- say, 50 or so -- who were highly connected to each other. Many of these users turned out to be African American.

In such "dense" communities of highly connected people, users' relationships are intensely reciprocal: They tend to be followed by as many people as follow them, and they seem more likely to respond to each others' tweets as well, as if Twitter were an instant-messaging service.

It's in exactly these kinds of tightknit groups that a non-news-related hashtag like #weoffthat can gain momentum and then take off as a trend.

As to whether this phenomenon is something truly unique to African Americans, it may be that other minority groups, especially with common interests, may also exist in clusters out there in the Twitterverse. Send a tweet if you find them.


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-- Amina Khan

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

Image: The cast members of MTV's "Jersey Shore." Credit: Mel Evans / Associated Press