After the dismal self-reported employee diversity numbers that came out of Silicon Valley in 2014, there’s been a big push by big tech to do better. Still, with the numbers of women and people of color in those companies remaining uninspiringly low in 2015, for those who have chosen to enter those ranks, it hasn’t come without a cost. The negative psychosocial impact that can result from being the only one of a few has played out in public media, as people like former Google engineer Erica Baker, former Twitter engineering manager Leslie Miley and former Twitter manager of journalism and news Mark S. Luckie all took to social media platform Medium to tell their stories.
We caught up with Luckie to talk about his life at Twitter and his latest project, Today in #BlackTwitter.
EBONY: How did you end up at Twitter?
Mark S. Luckie: Before I was at Twitter, I was working at The Washington Post as the national innovations editor, and later the social media editor of the newsroom. While I was at the Post, I was helping journalists to understand digital and social media, and I had written a book about it and started a blog about it. And then there was an opening at Twitter for manager of journalism and news. And with my background and years of helping journalists in this arena, it was a natural fit for me to come on staff.
EBONY: Did you think to yourself, “Hey, there may not be many people who look like me there?”
MSL: It’s not something I thought of, because in my entire career I worked in newsrooms, some more diverse than others. One of my first thoughts when I walked in Twitter was, “Oh my God, this place is amazing.” It’s like Disneyland. And then I started to look around and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m one of the only Black people.” In my new hire orientation, there was one other Black person, and we immediately became fast friends and ended up leading the Blackbirds, which is Twitter’s resource group for employees of color.
MSL: Twitter builds for 100 percent of its audiences, so it very rarely creates things built into the product that targets a segment. The aim wasn’t necessarily to interact with Black people, although they were the highest drivers of influence. Twitter is colorblind when it comes to influencers. If you’ve got a lot of followers and you’re engaged with them, Twitter wants to engage with you.
EBONY: Lately, yourself and others have written on Medium about being one of a few Blacks at a company in Silicon Valley and the psychosocial effects. Can you speak to the push for diversity alongside those outcomes?
MSL: The need for diversity is because you have to have a diversity of thought. If you have a diversity of people coming up with great ideas, who have different backgrounds, they are more likely to be innovative. But if you have a lot of people who look alike, who come from the same background, then you are not living up to the full potential. Those people who see other people who look like them there don’t see that anything is wrong. The company is going fine. They are making money. They don’t necessarily see how diversity can be a factor.
EBONY: How do organizations like Blackbirds help people of color?
MSL: It’s good to be surrounded by people who have the same background and similar experiences as you. There’s a certain detachment for a Black person who works in tech, because these are often people who come from a culture that is very different than yours. So having people who look like you and often think like you, it makes your experience much more rewarding.
And for the companies, it’s good because it increases retention. If I didn’t have the Blackbirds, I probably would’ve left Twitter far sooner. Because there’s a certain level of job satisfaction that comes from connecting with your coworkers. The downside is that a lot of these employee groups are run by employees. The initiatives aren’t necessarily coming from the top down, so it’s up to employees of color to sustain them. And that doesn’t increase the affinity that these people have for their employers. It’s like, “How are you helping us to build this community within the company?”
EBONY: People look at you as a role model. Why leave when there’s so much more work to be done?
MSL: There’s more work to be done outside of Twitter. I experienced what Silicon Valley had to offer. I was there for three years. There’s only so much you can say when you work for a company. Having those three years experience, I knew that I wanted to talk about these companies and how they could improve, and in leaving, I could inspire other people to see technology and Silicon Valley as an option. I wanted people to know that people like me existed.
EBONY: Would you say that was the impetus for the work you’re doing now, for the novel Do U., and for Today in #BlackTwitter?
MSL: Going into Twitter, I knew that #BlackTwitter existed. I knew that many African Americans were using the platform. But once you’re inside and you see the numbers and you see the activity and you see the influence on Twitter, for me it had a personal impact. It was like, here are all of these people on Twitter whose needs or issues aren’t necessarily being addressed. I’ve always been a maverick or whatever you want to call it, so when I feel that there is change that needs to happen, I get out there and address it.
So part of that change was committing more time to the book and creating Today in #BlackTwitter, so that people can see that African Americans are not just having fun and creating fun hashtags, but they are also salient to the conversation happening on Twitter. There was a gap that needed to be filled, and I decided to be the one to do it.
EBONY: I’m Black, I’m on Twitter, but I wouldn’t say I was a part of #BlackTwitter. How does your tool account for who is?
MSL: It’s not necessarily looking for people who are part of #BlackTwitter, but it’s aggregating the topics that #BlackTwitter is talking about. For example, #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies or #CNNBeLike. I would take that and see who were the influencers driving these conversations and who are the people talking about these conversations the most, algorithmically detecting who these people are. Not every Black person is considered as #BlackTwitter, but because we know the topics, we can find out who the influencers are.
EBONY: Why have you chosen Medium as its platform?
MSL: It’s an experiment right now. Medium has a social component built into it where people can share and they can recommend, and there’s the blog component, but there’s also the Twitter component. So if you want the daily digest that will be on the Medium site, and if you go to Twitter you can see what’s trending in the last two to three hours. I didn’t want it to be its own standalone thing. I wanted to integrate it into social, so that people can share and talk about it. There are plenty of people who aggregate #BlackTwitter content and put it on their own site. I want this to be the opposite of that, to give shine to the people who are creating the content and not just taking it.
EBONY: People are talking about #BlackPeriscope, #BlackInstagram, #BlackBuzzfeed. Is there a need to separate out the Black activity on all of these platforms in this way?
MSL: Both online and offline, Black people have been ghettoized. Our content and our culture have been seen as “the other.” So when people see Black people enjoying themselves on Instagram or Snapchat representing their culture, they automatically deem it as Black-something. But the reason why #BlackTwitter is so different is because it is more connected, it is more people sharing within this network. You can follow a bunch of people. You can share people’s content that you don’t necessarily know. Whereas on Instagram, you’re liking someone’s picture. On Periscope, you’re just following. There’s not necessarily community there, but there are people creating content.
The Black people on Twitter that I am looking at are sharing news, and people on other platforms are not necessarily sharing news, they are sharing content, and that’s the big difference. People are not just sharing memes, but they are having a great impact on public discourse.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.