Blackbird in the Coal Mine — Are Technology Platforms Stifling Black Community? (And Others Too?) — Part 2
In Part 1, I wrote about the technology conditions that led to a group of entrepreneurs creating Blackbird, a custom browser and web search to showcase African American content. While many applauded Blackbird’s efforts to contribute to an emerging Black content community online, others saw Blackbird much more negatively. For some, the fact that a product showcased Black content meant it excluded people from other racial or ethnic groups, or that it promoted a form of self-segregation. For many, they simply did not see a “problem” with the mainstream’s approach to search or showcasing content, and because Blacks were not marginalized to begin with creating a vehicle to address marginalization made no sense. After all, the Internet was supposed to be colorblind.
Dr. Andre Brock in “Beyond the Pale: The Blackbird web browser’s critical reception,” wrote about Blackbird from an academic point of view noting that Blackbird’s cultural affiliation with African American users became the rupture point for pundits and early adopters. The conclusion was that racial ideology created a lens through which the browser was viewed. Dr. Brock is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. For many, what was designed to celebrate our differences became yet another way to clash regarding our differences. For some, creation of community by using the open tools of the internet was tantamount to promoting self-segregation. However, others did see it as a way to promote and uphold media content from under-represented African American voices.
At the time, we knew next to nothing about a segment of America that was seething with racial animosity. The so-called Whitelash. The launch of a “Black Browser” generated a few tech news articles (for example a really great article in Ars Technica), and along with it hate email from the budding alt-right. Specifically, there were people who wanted to know why Blackbird was not an example of racial discrimination because White people could not use Blackbird (a false belief) and where was “Whitebird,” to which our reply was, of course, anyone could use Blackbird. This did not stop one critic from actually launching a webpage purporting to be the “Whitebird browser project” — a self-proclaimed joke. As mentioned earlier, there was also criticism from within the African American community by people who thought that using these tools could self-segregate Blacks, or further silo people and foster tribalism.
One aspect of Blackbird that was least appreciated was the idea that by using these tools Blacks could generate more traffic for Black blogs and content sites. This would serve to bolster these voices and reinforce their importance in the community. At the time, we had a set of links to over 60 African American specific blogs. That seems like a high number of regularly updated vibrant blogs and websites. While blogs are not relevant for the most part anymore, the African American ones died a premature death. Strong social media presence by various African American celebrities has become an important vehicle for mass communication, but there are really few African American media outlets — and, it is increasingly unclear how the ones that remain will survive. This is true for all media and content, but the Black ones will be the first to truly vanish. They are the canary in the coal mine, and more so because there is no front end to access their output and the algorithms of search and social media are stacked against them. Black Twitter is a notable exception that could potentially lead the way toward community in the age of Social Media.
A Blackbird mobile app exists today to harness the power of Black Twitter and leverage the energy of Black Twitter and create connections between Black Twitter and traditional Black media outlets. While specific communities organized around shared experiences will always find a way to emerge, will they be institutions like those that were created in magazines, newspapers and TV and radio stations for Black media? Or will they just exist on large social media platforms (with no community ownership or control). It seems like there will continue to be an opportunity to build upon the Black community’s ability to break new ground, create new paradigms and shape trends. People gravitate culturally toward the authentic. Creating authentic sources of content and showcasing them is not difficult but finding a way to generate a community and sustainable business around those authentic sources is a story that is still yet to be written.
Closely associated with the editorial limitations of the current search regime are its commercial underpinnings, which, mostly in the form of automated advertising or programmatic buying, severely limit sources of revenue for underrepresented groups. This aspect of the current technology regime perhaps has more application to social media such as Facebook and Twitter or even traditional ones such as broadcast television. Historically, advertisers seeking to reach ethnic minority consumers, for example, could do so by placing ads with media carrying programming attractive to those targeted groups. Today, programmatic buying focuses on psychological criteria purported to represent those individuals. Because this approach is seeking to reach a psychographic group and not necessarily the ethnic group supposedly so included, there is grave concern about to what extent it is effectively so doing. Furthermore, more powerful mainstream media invariably capture most of this type of advertising leaving their minority focused brethren disproportionately removed from the flow of funding. The net effect of this is a further diminution of underrepresented voices by undercutting the financial support for the very outlets that serve them.
As a conclusion, I would like to come back to the idea of creating communities in public spaces and talk about what that might mean in the physical world. I have been thinking about this since my early twenties when I wrote my senior thesis at Harvard on how the Cape Verdeans in Boston were able to better their community through collective action, and how that extended beyond politics. I am deeply reminded that in the United States there is an historical and social context to how communities are viewed. The fact is that communities (online and offline) that are built around a shared Black experience are often met with skepticism by a large portion of White America, or worse considered threatening. I have experienced festivals in Little Italy or Japantown (focused on Italian and Japanese culture, respectively) that are celebrated by a wider community. While there are examples of the celebration of Black culture by the wider community, I can point out that the response to Black culture is often the question, why are they introducing race — thus, completely missing the point. Often, to attempt to foster Black community is seen in juxtaposition to a “White” community; in other words, it is viewed racially and not culturally. My belief is that it shouldn’t be. This is what drives some people to think that if there is a “Blackbird” there should also be a “Whitebird.” I would offer that to attempt to connect with a community of shared heritage and experience it is not racial, it is cultural. Also, that when the algorithms are defining our digital mainstream experience, we need these digital communities to serve as a check or alternative.