‘Elevate the next generation’: As social platforms begin Black creator programs, critics say they need to do more

creators at home

Black influencers have long played a vital role in creating iconic cultural moments, many of which have been picked up and utilized in marketing campaigns and strategies. (Think “on fleek,” by Vine star Kayla Newman AKA Peaches Monroee — a phrase brands quickly coveted with tweets like IHOP’s “pancakes on fleek” tweet and Denny’s “hashbrowns on fleek.”)

They’ve also long been asking for credit for their work and resources to help them continue it — and now social platforms seem to be answering their calls with new Black creator programs.

In August, Facebook launched a Black creatives program and committed $25 million to Black creators on Facebook and Instagram. Earlier this month, YouTube rolled out its multi-year commitment to support Black creators with its #YouTubeBlack Voices fund. And just last week, TikTok launched TikTok for Black Creatives incubator program to invest in Black creatives and music artists on the app.

But even with the help of these new programs, Black creators say the social media companies need to do more — specifically tweak their algorithms, as many believe those algorithms makes their content harder to find — as well as combat unconscious bias. Facebook and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Black creators’ concerns about the algorithm. TikTok pointed Digiday to prior remarks on how it addressed concerns about the algorithm.

“This program is intended to identify, support, and elevate the next generation of culture-driving Black creators and artists by giving them the often-hidden tools and opportunities that can help them transform their creativity into successful careers,” Kudzi Chikumbu, director of creator community at TikTok, said in a provided statement.

TikTok’s three-month program includes inviting creators to town halls with Black entrepreneurs and celebrities, community-building forums and educational events on topics such as personal branding, building relationships and business development.

It’s TikTok’s response after the video platform found itself at the center of controversy over last summer after its algorithm was accused of elevating white voices over Black voiceseven censoring Black creators who spoke out about social injustice. As protests reeled in the name of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who was killed in police custody in late May, TikTok users took to the platform to spread awareness. At the time, the company responded to criticism in a blog post, claiming “a technical glitch” temporarily misreported the views on posts that used #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd.

Around the same time, Black creators and allies protested with the #ImBlackMovement, urging users to unfollow TikTok users who didn’t support the push to uplift Black voices, follow Black creators and change their profile pictures to show solidarity, CNN reported.

And earlier in 2020, The New York Times documented the experience of Black TikToker, Jalaiah Harmon. The teen’s Renegade dance went viral and made it from pep rallies to Lizzo, but it was TikTok stars like Charli D’Amelio who got credit.

TikTok vowed to do more, ahead of launching its Black Creatives incubator program with multi-platform media company MACRO. The two will partner to create a grant for a select group of creators. MACRO will also provide input regarding speakers, programming content and professional business-building opportunities for creators.

Some creators say they’re encouraged by TikTok’s response especially compared to other platforms that have been available in the U.S. for much longer than the short-form video app.

How guidance can help creators

Overall, getting “the inside [scoop]” directly from platforms like TikTok, Facebook and YouTube via creator programs, is helpful for creatives, said content creator Tiffany Laryn, “because not everyone has a Facebook manager or representative at YouTube or TikTok or wherever where they can obtain that information.”

Laryn started her social media career in the early days of pandemic lockdown with what she calls “relatable comedy videos” that feature predominately Black creators. In that time, she has racked up more than half a million followers across Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Facebook. 

“It can give creators guidance,” said TikTok creator ambassador Sarah Lugor. “Putting yourself into the digital space can be really intimidating, but once you have the resources, you’re able to put your full self forward with confidence.”

Lugar has more than 2.5 million followers on the short-form video app. She noted that thanks to TikTok’s algorithm that serves users highly specific content on their “For You” pages, she has had the opportunity to interact with other Black creatives in a way that she hasn’t been able to on other platforms. “The ‘For You’ page has introduced me to people like me that are just putting themselves out there,” she said.

At more than 977,000 followers, TikTok creator Makayla Did made similar a comment, noting that the app’s events and conferences have been an integral part of her experience as a Black creator. “I also think that it will show creators examples of Black creators that are doing well,” Did said, “and hopefully inspire them and reassure them that they are on the right path and they can be successful in what they want to do.”

Still more to be done

But even as platforms are now paying more attention to Black creators with these programs, some worry that issues with the kind of content that is amplified via the algorithm could still harm Black creators.

“I feel like Instagram only promotes things that they value versus things that would be valuable to everyone,” said lifestyle blogger Amanda Johnson, adding that if the platforms truly wanted BIPOC creators to be seen, it would take a harder look at the algorithm.

With more than 24,000 followers on Instagram, Johnson said she doesn’t see many creators of color while scrolling through the app and worries that her content is buried as well. Black creators miss out on potential paid deals, or even just opportunities to speak on social injustice, when the algorithm makes them difficult to find, Johnson said.

The opportunity has been made even bigger during the pandemic when consumers are in front of screens more than ever before.

“The fact that the algorithm doesn’t work in favor of people of color, it’s also affecting the way that we’re able to utilize our social platforms in a monetary aspect,” Johnson said.

Since launching her account in the early days of pandemic lockdown, Justina Sharp has racked up 69,000 followers on TikTok. In addition to fashion and beauty content, the creator often posts about politics and social injustice.

In one video, Sharp weighed in on the racial undertones of the Capitol riots. The post pulled in nearly 200,000 views, making it one of her more popular videos this month. For Sharp, TikTok’s strong algorithm, response to community critiques and program offerings show it “understand(s) that the popularity of their platform is their users.”

It’s a different experience than Facebook-owned Instagram, Sharp said. The creator has been on Instagram since its inception in 2010 and now has 92,000 followers. 

“Facebook and Instagram failed [to support creators] because the new algorithm is focused on selling products, meaning creator content isn’t being seen.” With tanking engagement, Sharp said her content is less often seen.

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However, others like Laryn are hopeful in Facebook’s latest offerings. 

Laryn has built a long list of social media credentials in only a few short months. In December, she announced she was accepted into the We The Culture Black Creator program with Facebook, where she can connect with a Facebook manager and other Black creators to scale their work.

“A lot of these platforms are enhancing or making it known that they’re supporting Black culture by doing things that are pushing the culture forward and or making sure that we have our time and are being heard,” she said. 

So far, the program has helped her channel grow with tools, learning resources and other opportunities to help her become a better creator. It’s a better alternative than trying to game the algorithm, Laryn said. 

“I don’t think anybody knows or for sure has the algorithm down. It’s all a guesstimate. Every time you think you have it, it changes up,” she said.

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