The cupid who designed for black lovers, buyers and sellers in cyberspace.

All the ‘buy-black’ initiatives that have been sprouting through out Africa and the world have been very inspiring. We are seeing more and more demand for consumers of color and their respective businesses to cluster together to grow the amount of goods, services and money that circulates in black communities.

Just one problem — I don’t buy it. I also don’t like being told to buy something simply because I am black. I am more of a book lover, a programmer, an anime fan, than I am a black person. Perhaps it is time to rethink how we shape intra-community trade and the affinities we expect people to connect with?

I don’t doube that the cultural effort has had/will have success, my arguments is about how best to optimise the solution to this problem at scale.

To expand on this, there seems to be a lot of justification to buy from black businesses based on the following reasons:

  1. Jews, Muslims, Indians and other ethnic groups have greater solidarity and this is evident in intra-community trade that helps build schools, hospitals, churches etc — I have seen and understand this point.
  2. Black businesses never work together, further crippling our intra-community trade — this not true, black people are often not enabled to work together.
  3. Black people are consumers instead of producers — this is a lie that was created outside of black communities and has evolved with the self-loathing we developed due to our suffering. There are many black people who start businesses every day and who have been set up top to fail from the beginning. It has only been just over 20 years since the fall of Apartheid in South Africa.

This is more of a design issue than it is a cultural one. Black consumers are great people and don’t need a moral obligation to buy goods and services from black suppliers — that would not be self-serving and would violate the basic trade incentives. We make it hard for businesses and consumers to be matched. We ask consumers to go out of pocket to support a cause — such as driving an extra 20 minutes to find a black owned petrol station. While this is noble, it is not economical and does not scale very well.

This is not a technology issue either, but tech can augment the solution. We could find a way to connect people of color to each other based on other affinities other than ‘friends’ the way Facebook does or ‘colleagues’ the way LinkedIn does. When a large number of black people have been graphed — having their close and community relationships mapped digitally — then we could:

  1. Build trust and recommendation systems based on social information — I will go to a restaurant that my trusted friends recommend or eat at. This is better than lots of noise from recommendations from a random strangers on a Facebook page (using Facebook pages with strangers is less of an issue for inexpensive low-stakes goods/services such as gardening.)
  2. We could then use artificial intelligence to aggregate information about the best places to eat, the best plumbers to use, best schools etc.

So if we build the right network typologies and create information systems on our social graphs, we could begin to optimize the matching experience while allowing consumers to be ‘lazy’ — the way all great products use good design to make a consumer experience easy/seamless at scale.

Many online black communities on Facebook and other platforms have done a great job of connecting us, but we are still waiting for our communities find a home online with a more suitable network portrait that can perform high-quality information queries efficiently, and at scale.

While the cause is noble, there is only so far we can go buy publishing random web-pages, manifestos and emotionally blackmailing people to buy from us out of an abstract moral obligation.

If you want to test this theory, try out an experiment on black lovers who want to find love on the internet. They are willing to meet and date other people of a high-quality-match. Some are also willing to spend money to make this process more meaningful. The problem is that the best social media tools available to black lovers have a sub-optimal network topology — many black people would prefer to meet other based on affinities such as church, school, neighborhood, ethnicity, language — instead of traits such as ‘hobbies’ that would inform who you swipe left or right. Current dating sights have network typologies suited to white westerners. Remember the argument here is not that black people hate swiping left or right, just that we have few options on how to connect to each other online in a way that resonates with us.

Like black lovers on the internet, black suppliers and consumers are also waiting to be matched more efficiently based on the right social network mapping (graph). If we design-black, then it will be easier to buy-black and date-black.