In the 1980s, crack cocaine flowed through America’s inner cities in a rampant rush of enterprise and despair. As this lucrative drug trade exploded, addicts and authorities alike sought out dealers ready to capitalize.
Suddenly the pager — a device developed nearly 40 years ago to quiet the constant noise of hospital’s telecom systems — quickly became a drug dealer’s best way to supply the constant demand of his fiends, while also avoiding the surveillance of the cops.
Time Magazine captured this moment in a 1986 article called “Street Smart: Drug Dealers Turn On To Beepers.” Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Curtis Hazell said:
Beepers are the single most-common tool of the drug trade.
At the same time that doctors and drug dealers were utilizing the technology for work and hustle, Black youth were adopting and co-opting pagers as a social tool used to stay in constant contact with friends. As they did, the black matte plastic devices that doctors toted started changing color, transforming the pager from a mobile communication device into a popular fashion accessory.
By 1990, popular hip-hop artists were referencing the burgeoning mobile technology, fueling its popularity to the point where more than 22-million pagers were in use. Four years later, the number of pagers being used had skyrocketed to more than 60 million. During the rise of the pager, various artists, including Sir Mix-A -Lot and A Tribe Called Quest, released songs paying homage to and detailing the importance of the wireless communication device.
As is the case with many new technologies, African Americans, through experimentation and innovation, have helped to diffuse such innovations to the masses. The pager is just one example of the trend, where young, savvy African Americans adopt, then shift the intended use and turn a new technology into a valuable social tool that gets integrated into one’s personal life.
As with the pager, hip-hop and its adoption and appropriation of hardware, such as the turntable, synthesizer, drum machine, boom box and the sampler, have in each instance worked to revolutionize the use, leading to improvements and ultimately popularizing these technologies.
It is a trend marketers have come to understand in a framework they call the “technology adoption life cycle,” a model that details the adoption and acceptance of new products and innovations. Its bell curve details the psychographic profile of five adoption groups: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
When it comes to the introduction of new technologies, young African Americans quite often prove to be the early adopters and trendsetters who use technology in new ways that helps companies refine their products. This realization has shaped the way companies do business, with marketers now knowing that where young African Americans lead, the world follows.
For instance, a number of prepay mobile providers have entered the game looking to serve Black customers who, according to the latest census data, make roughly 1.7 times less than whites yet run up more mobile voice minutes per month (1,261 minutes on average than any other ethnic group).
Boost Mobile, a wireless prepay mobile provider that began its business by courting the surf culture of Australia, bullied its way into the U.S. mobile market in 2006, spending millions on a marketing strategy that featured prominent rap artists like Kanye West, the Game and Ludacris in a campaign called “Where You At,” highlighting the mobile-communication customs of urban Black youth.
Darryl Cobbin, then-CMO of Boost Mobile who was responsible for spearheading the brand’s U.S. marketing efforts, details the insight that led to Boost:
We knew that if we captured this market not would they influence Black youth, but they would influence other youth and everyone else.
By designing what Cobbin called “fly” phones and amassing a distribution network with smaller cell carriers who serviced prepay customers, Boost quickly became the fastest-growing wireless brand in the prepaid category.
African Americans not only adopt the latest hardware, but also adopt and appropriate the newest software especially with the web. Before Myspace, Facebook and Twitter dominated the social media landscape, BlackPlanet became one of the most-frequented online destinations for Black youth. While not the first social network, many insiders credit BlackPlanet and its loyal trendsetting audience with bringing the obscure trend (yet to be called “social networking”) to the mainstream.
The guys who started Myspace were quoted in Business Week magazine saying that they looked at BlackPlanet as a model for Myspace and thought there was an opportunity to do a general market version of what BlackPlanet was,” Omar Wasow, the founder of BlackPlanet told Complex magazine.
Myspace went on to build its own loyal following, becoming one of the hottest properties on the web and sparking a bidding war before being bought by Newscorp for $580 million in 2005. A year later, Myspace briefly surpassed Google as the most-visited website in the United States. And to no one’s surprise, much of its audience was African-American youth. Soon thereafter, Facebook and Twitter grew to become the next Internet Goliaths, and once again, African Americans are fueling their growth.
Twitter, the popular microblogging site, is a another example. According to a new 2011 Pew Center study, 25 percent of online African-Americans are now using Twitter, compared with only 9 percent of online whites. While similar research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 1 in 10 African-American Internet users now use Twitter on a typical day, which is double the rate for Latinos and almost four times the rate for whites.
A 2010 Slate article credits young African Americans with creating the Twitter culture we know today, where replies and retweets have not only made the site a robust conversational tool, but also the new unofficial language of the web.
Brendan Meeder, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University who analyzed the tweets of more than 100-million users to see how Twitter users interact with one another, found that African Americans on Twitter have taken to forming tight-knit groups that propel and virtually dominate Twitter memes, otherwise know as trending topics.
It’s my impression that these hashtags start in dense communities — people who are highly connected to each other,” Meeder told Slate. “If you have 50 of these people talking about it, think about the number of outsiders who follow at least one of those 50 — it’s pretty high at that point. So you can actually get a pretty big network effect by having high density.